Starry, starry night
This valley is known for its breathtaking mountain scenery, alpine-village charm, and world class skiing. But residents and visitors of this wonderful parcel of Earth can take advantage of another activity the valley facilitates stargazing. Nearly 100 miles from Denver, and resting on the shoulder of the Rocky Mountains at over a mile-and-a-half above sea level, Vail is a doorstep to astronomer’s paradise you just have to look up.Unlike ice fishing or duet figure skating, stargazing is an enjoyable hobby that requires no special tools or talents. All you really need are some warm clothes, a hot beverage, and someone with whom to share your amazement as you watch the panorama of stars and planets sail silently across the celestial heavens.The two dominant constellations during this time of year in our visible region of space are also two of the easiest to spot Ursa Major and Orion. Both are visible throughout much of the early evening and night and, since they will probably look the same for quite some time, they are great reference points from which many other stars, galaxies, and planets can be found.The constellation Ursa Major, or the Great Bear, is best known for the asterism (a distinctive grouping of stars) we call the Big Dipper. If you have walked outside or can spot it from your window, you can easily see that the Big Dipper is part of a much larger grouping of 18 stars that shape Ursa Major. The four stars that form the handle of the Big Dipper also make the tail of the bear, the scoop of the Big Dipper forms the bear’s flank, and, with just a little imagination (or a telescope), you can see each of the three sets of stars that form the bear’s rear and forward legs and the three stars that make up the head.If you watch the Ursa Major from now until the middle of May, you’ll notice that he will begin to shift from a more horizontal position to one that makes it look like he’s standing on his tail, an ancient sign that Spring is approaching.The two stars that outline the rightmost edge of the scoop, Merak and Dubhe will also help you find Ursa Minor, the Little Bear or Little Dipper, in our night sky. Draw a diagonal line from Merak, the lower star of the right side of the scoop, through Dubhe, the upper star of the right side of the scoop, and continue until you find Polaris, the North Star.Navigators for countless centuries have used Polaris to guide their travels because the star always points true north, making Ursa Minor the most useful constellation in the sky. As the end of Little Bear’s tail, Polaris should help you pick out the other six stars that form the rest of this celestial figure; a miniature Big Dipper on a vertical axis.The other prominent constellation in our night sky, Orion, is low on the horizon throughout most of the night in winter and easily spotted by the three bright stars that make up this hunter’s belt. Orion stands facing us with his right hand arcing upwards and his left hand outstretched holding a bow. The star that forms his right shoulder, Betelgeuse, pronounced like Michael Keaton’s character in the movie “Beetlejuice,” is the 12th brightest star in the heavens.If you happen to have a pair of good binoculars or a small telescope handy and aren’t frozen solid yet, train your lens on the middle of the three fainter stars that hang down from the left side of Orion’s belt. This “star” is actually the Great Orion Nebula, a glowing cloud of material whose business it is to make stars. As gravity condenses the cold gas, stars are born in a system that might also produce earth-like planets.Like Merak and Dubhe in the Little Dipper that point to Polaris, the three stars of Orion’s belt point downward in a straight line to Sirius, the brightest star in all the heavens. Also known as the Dog Star, Sirius is part of the constellation Canis Major and Orion’s hunting companion.When this brilliant star is low on the horizon, as it is during this time of year, its normally bluish-white color will flicker into different colors of the rainbow like laser pulses at a Pink Floyd show. When observed over a significant period of time, Sirius seems to wiggle around in its orbit which seriously freaked out ancient astronomers. The conundrum was not solved until the middle of the 19th century when Alvan G. Clark first observed Sirius B., Sirius’ companion star, whose massive gravity imposes the “wiggling” effect.So head back inside and take off your shoes, throw another log on the fire and settle in with a good book knowing that you’re a little more familiar with Vail’s night sky. Or, if you’re completely enamored with the beauty, depth, and mystery of the space that surrounds us, stay out in the cold and think about how far a light year is, what it must look like to see another planet through the window of a passing spacecraft, or just how incredibly fortunate we all are to be here. VTMatt Charles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.