Thanksgiving Sky Reunion

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Stars of Orion.

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Thanksgiving Day is associated with traditional gatherings with family and friends, as well as the launch of the holiday season. But it also coincides with the mid-evening rise of the magnificent stars in and around the great constellation Orion. Around 9 p.m., after savoring our Thanksgiving dinner, we like to take a walk, and pause by a spot providing a vista toward the southeastern sky. There we enjoy renewing acquaintances with some bright, beautiful rising stars including Aldebaran, Betelgeuse, Rigel, Castor, and Pollux.

Although we can see this same glorious starry scene at other times and dates—6:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, 4 a.m. during early twilight of warm August mornings, midnight in mid-October, or around 9 p.m. a week or two before and after Thanksgiving—we especially enjoy our tradition of looking for these stars on the third Thursday night of November. Combined with the pleasures of holiday festiveness and pleasantly cool evenings, our walk to see Orion’s coterie is an annual treat. Of course you can enjoy the same celestial scene on other evenings around this time, for example the previous night. That’s when we can also watch in person or on television the huge Macys parade balloons being inflated on West 81st Street in Manhattan, just next Rose Center and the Hayden Planetarium of the American Museum of Natural History.    

Stars of Orion are easy to identify. Its cynosure is the remarkable set of three equally spaced stars marking the sky hunter’s belt. With these in view nearby yellowish-orange Betelgeuse and blue-white Rigel on opposite sides of the belt stars quickly confirm that we are indeed looking at Orion.

While enjoying that view, we like to think about the “star factory,” the luminous patch of glowing gas, nascent stars, and swirls of dust known as the Great Nebula of Orion. This region of copious star birth, about 1,300 light years from us and located just south of the three belt stars, is a prime target of astronomical research. Although it can be spotted with the naked eye under a clear dark sky, binoculars help reveal it when viewing conditions are less than ideal.

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