Get outdoors if you can, locate a few stars you recognize, and be awe-struck.

Start simply by learning how to spot the Big Dipper and Orion the Hunter. A star map is helpful.

Our sun, an average-size star, is a ball of hydrogen gas with a diameter of 864,000 miles and is 93 million miles away from Earth, part of the Milky Way galaxy. We live in the Milky Way and part of it can now be seen as a band of light composed of millions of stars, overhead running from northwest to southeast. You can easily see this band of light arching across the heavens if you can get far away from bright city lights. Every individual star that we can see, some in the form of figures called constellations, is part of the Milky Way. And each star is basically a big glowing ball of gas.

The nearest star visible to us, other than the sun, is Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky and located just to the left of the lower part of Orion. The light reaches us from the sun in just 8 minutes, and yet it takes eight years for the light leaving the surface of Sirius to reach our eyes.

The North Star, also called Polaris, is not terribly bright, but it is fairly easy to find at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. It is 432 light years away; that is, the light has been traveling from the surface of Polaris since the year 1588 to reach us tonight.

Orion the Hunter serves as the hub of the winter constellations and, along with the Big Dipper, is undoubtedly the most recognizable star pattern. It’s one of the few constellations that looks somewhat like its namesake. Most people can imagine it as the figure of a big person with a club in one hand and a shield in the other. In the right shoulder of Orion is the star called Betelgeuse (pronounced “beetle juice”). This red supergiant is about 429 light years away, and it fluctuates in diameter from about 300 million to around 1 billion miles. It’s the largest star within 1,000 light years of the earth. To quote Mike Lynch, WCCO 830-AM radio meteorologist and popular Minnesota amateur astronomer: “The next time you see Betelgeuse, keep in mind that it’s the biggest single thing you’re ever seen.”

Galaxies are huge, containing millions of stars, and there could be billions of them spread across the universe. The Andromeda galaxy, found between constellations Cassiopeia and Andromeda, is 2.5 million light years away, and the next-door neighbor to the Milky Way. It is the most distant object the human eye can see. If you are stargazing in the dark countryside, you can see it with the naked eye as a small, fuzzy spot.

 

Jim Gilbert’s observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota.