The Winter night sky over Gold Butte National Monument is filled with the brightest stars that we can see all year long. I know it is cold out there, but cold air is actually much clearer than warm air so the stars will shine like you have never seen them before.
Maybe you just want to take a quick look and then run back to that warm and comfy sleeping bag. OK, look low in the West just after sunset and before it gets completely dark. Do you see that bright object up there? That is the planet Venus and it is the most brilliant object in the night sky besides the moon. As Winter progresses she will get higher and higher in the western sky. By February or March it will be very easy to spot so do not give up if you miss her in November or December.
Everybody can find the moon, so look for it when it passes Venus towards the end of each month. Watch a thin sliver of a crescent moon glide by Venus, over the course of a couple of nights, low in the West after sunset. You will have to be in a place where you can see low into the sunset without trees or your house in the way.
If you want to brave the cold for a little longer, there is plenty to see up there. You might want to get away from lights, especially those distracting Christmas lights, to get an unimpeded view of the cosmos above. Orion is a great starting place and one of the easiest constellations to find. Look for 3 bright stars all in a row. That is his belt and there is nothing else up there quite like it. Then look for four stars in a big rectangle around the belt.
The star at the upper left corner of Orion is Betelgeuse, a truly super-sized star. Can you see its reddish color? Millions of our suns would fit inside. Astronomers tell us to watch for it to explode any day now. Their interpretation of any day is twenty or thirty thousand years from now.
Do you feel like you are not getting enough sun during these cloudy Winter days? Maybe you should consider moving to Rigel, the bright star on the lower right corner of Orion. That star is so bright a sun bather would get decades worth of tanning in just a few minutes. Be sure to bring your sunscreen.
Line up the three stars in the belt and point down and to the left to the brightest star in the sky. Is it bright because it is a really bright star or because it is close to us? We can’t really tell looking up at what appears to be a two dimensional dome above us. Turns out it is close, closer than any other star we can easily see up in the sky. Its name is Sirius and if you can book a nonstop flight there, you will have plenty of time to catch up on all that reading you have been meaning to do. The journey will take you about ten million years.
Be sure to check out the Pleiades, everybody’s favorite little star cluster. Look above and to the right of Orion for a tight grouping of dimmer stars about the size of the full moon. On a clear moonless night they look like sparkling diamonds sprinkled on black velvet. Most people can see five or six of them, but actually there are about three thousand bunched together. A pair of binoculars will show you dozens.
If you really want to go deep into the vast universe beyond us, see if you can spot our home in the big, big view above, the Milky Way galaxy. it appears to us as a glowing band of light stretching from North to South across the sky. It is so far away that the light from it has taken thousands of years to get here. What you are looking at is the combined brilliance of billions and billions of suns.
The old saying goes that on a clear day you can see forever, but that is nothing compared to how far you can see on a clear night. Up in the North find a W about the size of your outstretched hand. That is Cassiopeia, the Queen. Go South from that W again about the length of your hand to an oblong fuzzy spot. A pair of binoculars will help you to pick it out. If you can find it, congratulations, you have achieved the naked eye challenge. That little spot is the most distant thing the human eye can pick out. The light you are seeing has taken a couple of million years to get here from another whole galaxy way, way out there.
Have fun in the cold this Winter, and be sure to take in the big picture above.
By Dave Ward
Dave is a Friends of Gold Butte volunteer and along with his wife Teresa is an Archeological Site Steward for the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office.