StarWatch: Milky Way brings winter friends

Published 7:01 am Sunday, October 29, 2017

By Deane Morrison

University of Minnesota

In November the Milky Way arches high across the mid-evening sky from east to west. At its eastern end, winter constellations Orion, the hunter; the Gemini twins; Taurus, the bull; and Auriga, the charioteer enter the sky. At its western end, the Summer Triangle of bright stars wheels toward the horizon.

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Face north to see scraggly Perseus just to the right of M-shaped Cassiopeia. Below them the Little Dipper hangs from its anchor—Polaris, the North Star—and the Big Dipper hugs the horizon. Look high in the south to see the Great Square of Pegasus above the somewhat dim Circlet of Pisces. Immediately northeast of the Great Square is a faint oval smudge; this is the Andromeda Galaxy, the Milky Way’s nearest large neighbor. Binoculars—and a good star chart—will help you find it.

Early in the evening, a sparkling multicolored star comes out somewhat low in the northeast. This is Capella, the  “little goat, “ the brightest star in Auriga and the sixth brightest in all the night sky. At just over 42 light-years away, Capella—also called the Goat Star—is fairly close. It appears as a single star, but it comprises a pair of aging yellow stars that are significantly bigger and brighter than the sun but orbit each other closer than the Earth orbits the sun.

Capella often appears multicolored, twinkling both red and green. This happens when it’s low in the sky and we see it through a thick swath of Earth’s atmosphere that refracts its light like a prism, an effect most easily seen with bright stars. See if you can make out a small, elongated isosceles triangle of stars near the Goat Star; these are called  “the kids. “

In the morning sky, Mars is a reddish dot low in the east-southeast before dawn. On the 14th it appears between a waning moon above and the bright star Spica, in Virgo, below. All month long, Venus smolders in the sun’s foreglow.

On the 13th Jupiter, charging up from the horizon, sweeps to the right of Venus, coming within a moon’s width. The king of planets is climbing as Earth catches up to it in the orbital race, while the queen is dropping en route to disappearing behind the sun. On the 16th a lovely sliver of moon appears above the two planets.

The full hunter’s moon shines the night of the 3rd-4th. Between midnight and dawn on the mornings of the 17th and 18th, no moon interferes with the peak of the Leonid meteor shower. Some 20 meteors per hour may fly from the head of Leo, the lion, which clears the eastern horizon by midnight. Bundle up, find an open space, lie back on a blanket or lawn chair and enjoy the show.

The University of Minnesota offers public viewings of the night sky at its Duluth and Twin Cities campuses. For more information and viewing schedules, see:

Duluth, Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium:

Twin Cities, Minnesota Institute for Astrophysics: Check out the astronomy programs at the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum ExploraDome: Find U of M astronomers and links to the world of astronomy at

Contact: Deane Morrison, University Relations, (612) 624-2346,