As each season passes, the stars in the night sky change as well. The long, cold nights of winter are a great opportunity for some skywatching. Naked eye skywatchers are treated to several prominent constellations, while those using binoculars and telescopes are able to see a multitude of deep space objects. So, as we enter winter, let’s have a look at what the winter skies have in store!
Close to the circumpolar Big Dipper is the constellation Leo, the Lion. Leo in mythology is the lion killed by Hercules as one of his twelve labors. It’s a fairly large constellation that stretches across the sky, lying in the ecliptic zone. It is one of the signs of the zodiac, and may also contain a planet or two. Leo is also fairly bright, and can be seen in little to moderate light pollution. Lying close to Leo are two groups of galaxies, the Leo Triplet and the M96 groups for those with telescopes. These groups of galaxies are part of the Local Superclusters of galaxies, which also contains the Milky Way. Leo is a highly recommended target for those looking to spot galaxies.
To the immediate east of Leo is the constellation Virgo, the Virgin. Virgo also lies in the ecliptic and is also a sign of the zodiac. Virgo contains the bright star Spica, but the real wonder of Virgo is the abundance of galaxies contained within. There are at least a dozen galaxies visible with amateur telescopes! Due to the concentration of galaxies within Virgo, our local supercluster of galaxies is referred to as the Virgo Supercluster. Finding Virgo will help you spot at least ten of the Messier objects. To find the group of Messier galaxies, the triangle of Leo points right towards them. If you’re looking to point your telescope at galaxies, Leo and Virgo are perhaps the two best constellations in which to find them!
Another prominent constellation in winter skies is Bootes the Plowman. Bootes can be found to the north of Virgo, and contains the bright star Arcturus. Another way to spot Bootes is by following the tail of the Big Dipper, which “arcs towards Arcturus”. Bootes contains several NGC galaxies and a loose globular cluster. Although it’s not visible with amateur equipment, a large part of the Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall is contained in Bootes. The Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall is the largest structure in the universe discovered to date, at around 6 to 10 billion light years across! It’s theorized to be a wall of galaxies. That’s one large cluster!
Between Virgo and Bootes lies the constellation Coma Berenices, the Hair of Berenices. It’s named after the hair that Queen Berenice II of Egypt sacrificed to the goddess Aphrodite to ensure her husband Ptolemy’s safe return from an expedition he undertook against the Seleucids that murdered his sister. Coma Berenices looks like half a square, or a right-angle and is fairly dim.
The most prominent object in Coma Berenices is the M64 galaxy, also known as the Black Eye galaxy. It gets it’s name due to a large dust lane within the galaxy that blocks the light from the stars of the galaxy, giving it the appearance of a black eye. It is one of the most unique galaxies, and is definitely worth pointing a telescope at.
Lastly, there is the constellation Hercules. Named after the Greek hero of legend, Hercules is located to the northeast of Bootes. Hercules contains two globular star clusters, M13 and M92.
M13 is the brightest globular cluster in the northern hemisphere, even visible with the naked eye in a very dark sky. In binoculars, it looks like a fuzzy star. In a telescope, hundreds of stars can be made out in quite an impressive display. M13 isn’t too hard to find, so check this cluster out!
With the nights of winter being long, they provide a good opportunity to gaze up at the stars. Finding the constellations and the myths behind them will help give insight into ancient cultures, and will also help to find some very interesting deep sky objects that lie thousands, if not millions of light years away. As a bonus, since the winter air is much colder, the air doesn’t hold as much moisture and will allow better, more clear views with a telescope. So, on a clear winter’s night, be sure to take a look at the stars!
Don’t forget to share us with your stargazing friends on Facebook and Twitter!