Thursday, April 1, 2010

Tripping the Light Fantastic - Part 2

Let’s continue our trip along the Winter Milky Way, this time exploring the northern end.

1) About an hour after your local sunset time, face north. If you don’t know the cardinal directions at your location and you don’t have a compass, make note of where the sun sets on the horizon. That spot is approximately west. Stand with your left shoulder to the west, and you’ll be facing approximately north.

Star maps created with Your Sky

2) Moving up from the northern horizon, the first asterism (star pattern) you’ll spot is the House in the constellation Cepheus the King. It's a simple five-sided shape, not unlike a child’s drawing of a house. Its peaked roof is currently pointing straight up (toward the south).

3) Follow the westward curve of the Milky Way (toward the left) to find the Lazy W asterism of the constellation Cassiopeia the Queen. The W is standing on end, with the top of the W— the open end— facing right, or east.

4) Next in line on our glowing path is the asterism known as the Segment, in the constellation of Perseus the Hero. This is a curved line of six stars, oriented with its bulge protruding westward (to the left).

5) Continue a little farther along the Milky Way to finish up at the Pentagon asterism of the constellation Auriga the Charioteer. The very bright star that marks one of the Pentagon corners is the yellow-white Capella, sixth brightest star in Earth’s night sky.

6) With your head now tipped all the way back, can you spot where you left off last week when you swept up the Winter Milky Way from the southern horizon? The Milky Way is again bracketed by Taurus and Gemini, but this time Taurus the Bull is on the left (west) and Gemini the Twins are on the right (east).

Enjoy the spectacle of the Winter Milky Way through the warming spring, as it each night inches its way incrementally westward (or appears to, as the Earth continues eastward on its journey around the Sun). And don’t be sad when our friend WMW drops below the western horizon in June, because rising in the east to replace it will be another "light fantastic" we can trip together: the Summer Milky Way.