Partner Series
Cool Cosmos: Winter Night Sky Offers Rare Treats
Daniel McVey released this image of the winter sky over the Gore Range in Summit County, Colorado on March 6, 2013. He noted the winter Milky Way and Winter Circle (Capella, Aldebaran, Rigel, Sirius, Procyon, and Castor), Aldebaran (Taurus), Jupiter and the Pleiades.
Credit: Daniel McVey/www.danielmcvey.com

I first began to learn the constellations as a young boy, right after I moved from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to one of the so-called "outer boroughs," the Bronx.

Fifty years ago, there was a very distinct difference between the night sky as seen from Manhattan and the view from the four other boroughs, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island. Manhattan (as it is now) was brilliantly lit up, especially in Midtown and around Times Square. In addition, the city's skyscrapers and tall apartment buildings made it very difficult to pick out more than a dozen or so stars at any one time.

But once you were free and clear of Manhattan, the concentration of bright lights tended to gradually diminish, and residential neighborhoods replaced the skyscrapers and tall apartment buildings. So, while I couldn't see much from E. 119th St. and First Avenue in East Harlem, the universe literally opened up to me when I moved to the Throggs Neck section of the Bronx. There, the night sky was much darker, and I could actually see more than just a handful of stars. [Solar and Lunar Eclipses, Planets & More: The Feb. 2017 Sky (Video)]

And just a stone's throw away to the north, the darkness of the night sky back then resembled what you would see today in distant rural settings. At my uncle Ron's house in Mahopac, New York, a mere 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Midtown Manhattan, it was not unusual for me to see stars that are near the theoretical limit of visibility for most people who have good eyesight: the very faint magnitude +6.5. And on exceptionally clear nights, the Milky Way was so bright it actually cast a faint shadow, believe it or not. 

On very rare occasions, I could even glimpse some of the brighter sections of the Milky Way from my own backyard in the Bronx, the very last time being in 1976 as I reported here eight years ago. Less than a year later, on July 13, 1977, I could see the Milky Way from my house from almost horizon to horizon. 

But that night doesn't count, because a power blackout had plunged New York City into darkness. 

Unfortunately, cities have certainly gotten much brighter over the past half century as the spread of bright lights has dramatically increased. But even if you live in an urban area, that shouldn't deter you from learning the night sky. Winter is probably the best season to stargaze, because this season's evening sky hosts the brightest array of stars and constellations. But before we do any exploring, let's step through some good guides that one can use to learn the stars and constellations.Recommended reading

When I was a youngster, I relied chiefly on two books to help me recognize star patterns. One was "The Stars: A New Way to See Them" (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1952) by H.A. Rey. That's the very same H.A. Rey who created the mischievous monkey popularly known as Curious George. But Rey was also an assiduous amateur astronomer, and his constellation outlines are in many cases remarkably successful at tracing out what their names suggest. 

Another favorite of mine was titled simply "Stars," written by Robert H. Baker and Herbert S. Zim. It's one of a series of Golden Guide books from St. Martin's Press (1951). The book features constellation charts, planet location tables, and explanations for celestial objects and phenomena like eclipses, meteors and comets. 

And it's portable; at just 4 by 6 inches (10 by 15 centimeters), the paperback is easy to bring along on travels. As one reviewer wrote on Amazon.com, "Don't let the size fool you. I grew up with Golden Books. They are better than most anything I've read — college-level information, yet written for a child to understand."

I started seriously perusing the starry sky during the winter season after I had received my first telescope as a Christmas present. Because the air is crisp and cold in the winter, it tends also to be clean and transparent, which makes the winter sky appear more glorious than at any other time of the year. At 8 p.m. local time in early February, stargazers can find Orion — the main winter "signpost" — hanging well up in the south; the famous Big Dipper is standing on its handle in the northeast, with Regulus in the constellation of Leo just rising above the east-northeast horizon. The full moon slowly appears to approach Regulus during the overnight hours of Feb. 10-11. 

Low over the southeast horizon, a dazzling blue-white star seems to scintillate. That's Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest star in the sky, located in the Big Dog, Canis Major. Just follow the three-star belt of Orion down to the left (east) and you'll hit Sirius (as if you really needed the belt stars to locate it; Sirius, after all, stands out in the winter sky like the Cullinan diamond).

If you follow the line of the belt upward and to the right (west), you'll eventually reach a bright orange star often called "the eye of the Bull." This is the star Aldebaran in Taurus, which is located amidst a V-shaped cluster of stars that make up the Bull's face and are known as the Hyades. Incidentally, the gibbous moon was situated just to the left of Aldebaran on Super Bowl Sunday night. 

Even more striking is the star cluster known as the Pleiades or Seven Sisters. To locate these stars, all you have to do is continue the line from Orion's belt through Aldebaran, then curve it slightly downward until you arrive at what at first glance appears to be a tiny, silvery cloud of light. Closer inspection shows this to be a tight cluster of about a half dozen stars, although some folks with very sharp eyes can see a dozen or more stars. Binoculars of course reveal many more than that. [Starry Night: The Seven Sisters Shine Brilliantly in New Photo]

Almost directly overhead, stargazers find a very bright yellowish-white star known as Capella, in the constellation of Auriga, the Charioteer. Well to Orion's upper left are the stars Pollux and Castor, the heads of the Twin Brothers, known as Gemini. And between the Twin stars and Sirius, yet another bright twinkler, Procyon, appears in the Little Dog, Canis Minor.

I haven't even yet mentioned the two bright planets that command stargazers' attention over in the west: dazzling, silver-white Venus — the beacon of the current evening sky — and to its upper left, the much dimmer, yellow-orange Mars. There is obviously so much to see and explore in the current winter sky!

One final suggestion is to keep a diary or a logbook of your sky observations. I did this during my early skywatching days, since I found that writing things down is a good way to keep a permanent record of what you have seen. 

You will be sure to find plenty "up there" to interest you!

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmers' Almanac and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for Fios1 News in Rye Brook, New York. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com