Important winter constellations
Orion (Hunter) visible from January to March
Orion’s belt is considered one of the easiest star formations to identify. There are 3 stars in close proximity spaced evenly apart and in a straight line. The 3 stars are named Alnitak, Alnilam & Mintaka. Orion is near to the equator and should be searched for in the southern sky from the northern hemisphere. Once you have identified Orion\’s belt his shoulders and feet are easy to locate perpendicular to the asterism in either direction. The opposing shoulder – ‘Betelguese’ and foot – ‘Rigel’ are among the ten brightest stars from earth. From the shoulder of Betelguese Orion has a raised arm with a club and from the opposing shoulder of Bellatrix Orion’s arm is in line with the shoulders and holding a long bow. Orion’s is considered the most enjoyable constellation for amateur stargazers as it is easy to locate and is easy to identify the image it is said to depict.
Winter hexagon visible from December to February
The winter hexagon connects a number of very bright stars in separate constellations. Although it is not officially a constellation itself, the asterism is very useful in identifying a number of other significant constellations.
The winter hexagon connects 6 constellations. The foot of Orion (Rigel) which is the 7th brightest star. The chest of Canis Major (Sirius) which is the brightest star. The tail end of Canis Minor (Procyon) which is the 8th brightest star. The Gemini twins (Castor and Pollux) with Pollux the 17th brightest star. Part of the charioteers hat of Auriga (Capella) which is the 6th brightest star. The bulls eye of Taurus (Aldeberan) which is the 14th brightest star.
This list follows the stars in a clockwise direction and Betelguese the shoulder of Orion is in the middle of the hexagon. There is another asterism called the winter triangle that links Rigel, Sirius and Betelguese.
Canis Major (Big Dog) visible from December to March
Canis Major is latin for the big dog, one of Orions hunting companions. Now you have identified Orion and the winter hexagon, it should be relatively straight forward to locate his dogs. Canis Major is a 2D shape of a dog. The dog is facing Orion, from Sirius at the chest of the dog, move away from Orion to find the stars the identify the hips and tail point. From the hips and chest there are stars perpendicular to the body that mark the front feet and back feet. In the other direction there is a star with that marks the ears and in front of this a star that marks the nose.
Canis Minor (Small Dog) visible from December to April
With Procyon identified from the winter hexagon, you have located the tail of Canis Minor. Canis Minor is only 4 stars with a body and two ears and faces the same direction as Canis Major. As Procyon is the tail, the head and ears can be found in the direction of Orion.
Auriga (Charioteer) visible from December to April
Identified as part of the winter hexagon, Auriga is the charioteers helmet detailed by Ptolemy. The shape is similar to the circumpolar king constellation of Cepheus. The mask is the shape of a face with a pointed top. It is intended to depict the Roman chariot masks as depicted in films such as Ben Hur. Auriga is in the winter milky way, although the milky way is not as prominent as it is as its core in Sagittarius, there are a number of star clusters and nebula. El Nath forms both one horn of the Taurus and the chin of the mask of Auriga. El Nath is directly opposite Capella and allows viewers to use Auriga and Taurus to identify each other.
Pegasus (Winged horse) visible from August to December
Pegasus is the constellation representing a horse. Pegasus lies north of Pisces and Aquarius in the direction of Cygnus the swan. The asterism that helps to identify Pegasus is the square of Pegasus. This is an almost perfect square with the 4 brightest stars in the constellation. Alpheratz star on the eastern corner of the square is shared with Andromeda constellation, forming the head of Andromeda
The neck of the horse comes from the western corner of the square closest to Aquarius. The constellation only represents the upper half or bust of the horse with the two front legs branching from the southern corner of the square.
Winter Zodiac constellations
Pisces (Two fish) best seen in early evening sky in November
Pisces represents the two fish constellation. Pisces is between Aquarius to the west and Aries to the east. It is often depicts and two fish tied to a point by ribbon. It in fact forms a large ‘V’ shape and is similar to Taurus representing long horns. The brightest star is at the base of the ‘V’ and reflects the point that the fish are fixed to. Two lines branch from there at 45 degrees from each other in the direction of the square of Pegasus just wide of it. At the end of the ribbons before reaching Pegasus and Andromeda respectively there are a small collection of stars that represent the fish.
Aries (Ram) best seen in early evening sky in December
Aries is the constellation of the Rams horns. Aries is between Pisces to the west and Taurus to the east. Aries itself is a very basic form and of little interest for the shape of the stars. The two brightest stars Hamal and Sheratan were used for navigation while Hamal held special importance as it historically marked the Spring equinox.
Taurus (Bull) best seen in early evening sky in January
Taurus is identified as part of the winter hexagon. The bulls face is identified within the winter hexagon and the V shape within the constellation is used as an asterism for locating constellations. The face of the bull is 5 stars that form a ‘V’ shape of which Aldebaran is the top left of the ‘V’. The horns of the bull are very long and are identified by stars at their end. They are approximately 5 times longer than the face of the bull.
Taurus is located in front of the bow of Orion at a 45 degree upward angle. The neck and front legs of the bull are a similar distance in the other direction and finish in front of Orion’s bow.
Gemini (Twins) best seen in the early evening sky in February
Gemini is identified as part of the winter hexagon. Gemini is the twins constellation of Castor and Pollux. The two brightest stars form the heads of the twins. The constellations is between Taurus to the west and Cancer to the east.
The best identifiers for Gemini include:
- The northern hexagon of which the twins heads are included
- Within the mosaic of constellations Gemini stands directly on the club of Orion
The recognisable V shape within Taurus which will appear directly west of Gemini
Canis Minor is another useful pointer with the front of the dog pointing at the feet of the twins
- Gemini’s third brightest star (Athena) forms one of the twins feet. Gemini is depicted as 2 stick figures holding hands. The most notable shapes are the two parallel lines that form a ‘U’ when traced. From there less prominent stars form the arms and legs.
Cancer (Crab) best seen in the early evening sky in March
Cancer is relatively difficult to identify and is the second least prominent of all zodiac constellations. The constellation forms an inverted ‘Y’ shape and is between Gemini to the west and Leo to the east. Tarf and Acubens form the two points of the ‘Y’ representing the claws of the crab.
Leo (Lion) best seen in the early evening sky in April
Leo is one of the constellations which is shaped similarly to the animal it represents. The IAU official depiction shows a standing lion. However many identify it easier as a seated lion in a shape similar to the sphinx. Leo is located between Cancer to the west and Virgo to the east. Regulus is the brightest star in Leo and is the 21st brightest star in the sky. Regulus marks the front leg of Leo. Prominent stars also mark the tail (Denebola), the shoulder (Algieba), the hips and the neck.
Most visible early evening constellations by month
October: Aquarius, Pegasus
November: Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Pisces
December: Aries, Perseus
January: Orion, Taurus
February: Auriga, Canis Major, Gemini
March: Cancer, Canis Minor
Each of these constellations will become visible in the eastern sky before sunrise several months earlier and each day appear further west. The constellations listed are for viewing in early evening, the previous months listed constellations will appear to the immediate west. At any given time on a clear night you should be able to see at least 3 months of constellations. Additionally if you return later in the night you should see additional constellations beginning to appear, as those listed on this list will move below the horizon by midnight.