Asterisms for Winter Nights

Asterisms appeal to our playful side but also serve as key waypoints in the sky for identifying fainter stars and constellations.

Three Not-So-Hidden Asterisms

There are three asterisms in this photo. Can you find them? Answers at the end of this article.
Bob King

Thank goodness for asterisms! If you're a beginning skywatcher, asterisms ease your entry into the night sky. Even seasoned observers know that most constellations don't look like the figures they're supposed to represent. OK, some do. Like Ursa Major, the Great Bear, or Delphinus, the Dolphin. But you'll pull your hair out trying to see a chained princess in Andromeda or the chariot-driving Auriga.

Asterisms are easy-to-recognize patterns that can be part of a larger constellation or composed of stars from more than one constellation. One of the biggest, the Winter Hexagon, borrows from six! Some asterisms even involve the entire constellation, as in the 'W' of Cassiopeia or the Northern Cross, a.k.a. Cygnus, the Swan.

All asterisms have one thing in common: they make wonderful places from which to begin learning the constellations.

A great many skywatchers have cut their teeth on Orion's Belt (yours truly) and the Big Dipper, straightforward, easy-to-recognize patterns of relatively bright stars. Finding the Belt is your passport to the rest of the great hunter.

Simple Shapes Make the Search Easy

Two familiar asterisms of fall and winter are the Great Square of Pegasus and the faint Circlet of Pisces. Both are visible in the southwestern sky during early evening hours in mid-January.
Bob King

From the Dipper, we can use the Pointer Stars (another asterism) to arrive at the North Star or explore the very bear-like outline of the constellation Ursa Major. While we're talking about the Belt, Aussie skywatchers, who see Orion upside-down from our northern perspective, picture a "saucepan" by combining the Belt with Orion's Sword. Since Orion is very much a summertime constellation viewed from down under, could homemade barbecue sauce be bubbling away in there, I wonder?

Find the Square, Go Anywhere

Find the Great Square of Pegasus and you’ll be on your way to identifying six key stars that head up six different constellations.

The Sickle of Leo asterism works backwards and forwards, west to faint Cancer the Crab and the Beehive Cluster and east to the lion's tail. Shooting lines through the Great Square of Pegasus, a favorite fall asterism, plunges our gaze into the watery depths where we meet up with Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish, and the gargantuan Cetus, the Sea Monster.

Getting Hexed

Can you see the Hexagon and the letter G? From bottom clockwise: Sirius, Procyon, Pollux, Castor, Capella (overhead), Aldebaran and Rigel. Betelgeuse is a lone horse corralled by the figure.
Bob King

For sentimental reasons, Orion's Belt will always be my favorite, but no pattern connects more bright stars and offers avenues to a greater diversity of constellations than the Winter Hexagon. First-time skywatchers are wowed by the Hexagon's sheer size . . . and its brilliance.

From Capella to Sirius, top to bottom, the figure spans 65°, or more than six fists at arm's length, and 45° in width (Procyon to Aldebaran). Here's the kicker: Not only does it vie for biggest asterism in the known universe, it contains 7 of the sky's 21 first magnitude or brighter stars: Sirius, Procyon, Pollux, Capella, Aldebaran, Rigel, and Betelgeuse.

A word about Pollux's neighbor Castor. At magnitude 1.6, it's officially a 2nd-magnitude star, but situated so close to the figure, it doesn't seem right to exclude it. If we graciously include Castor, the Hexagon morphs into a 7-sided Heptagon.

Betelgeuse, sadly left out of all the geometric merrymaking, comes into its own in the Heavenly G, completing the letter's inner lobe. Whatever form you prefer, the best time to view it is around 9 to 11 p.m. in mid-January as it stands high (and low) in the south-southeastern sky.

Start with the unmistakably brilliant Sirius at the lowest apex and work your way clockwise and up to Procyon in Canis Minor, the Gemini Twins, the neck-cracking Capella near the zenith, then down to Aldebaran, and farther to sparkling, white Rigel in Orion. Swirl your gaze around it a few times for the full effect.

Hexagon vs. Celestial G

Winter Hexagon or Heptagon — your choice. To better sense the depth of the scene, I've added each star's distance from Earth. The winter Milky Way "flows" directly through the grand figure. See a video about the future of the Hexagon from Sky & Telescope's Tony Flanders.

Now, imagine if you're new to the sky how helpful this asterism will be. Using these 6 or 7 stars you can pilot to a half-dozen constellations or more. What a great way to learn the sky — establish a base of operations from which to make nightly forays into lesser known realms.

A Saucy Sight

The southern sky asterism the "Saucepan", composed of Orion's Belt, Sword and the star Saiph.

One final asterism of winter nights is far less showy but no less amazing — the Three Leaps of the Gazelle. You'll spot it springing alongside the Big Dipper in the northeastern sky from about 9 o'clock on.

This is an ancient Arabic star group composed of three sets of paired stars that resemble starry hoof prints in the sky. None of the pairs is especially bright, but the six stars are stand-outs because they form a striking repetitive pattern. All of them belong to Ursa Major.

Legend has it that the gazelle was startled by the lion as it drank from a pond (Coma Berenices) near the lion’s lair. It sprang up and leaped across the sky from east (left) to west, leaving impressions in muddy ground. Here’s the breakdown on the stars’ names, which refers to the first, second, and third leap respectively from east to west:

* First Leap — Alula Australis (Nu UMa) and Alula Borealis (Xi UMa)
* Second Leap —  Tania Australis (Lambda UMa) and Tania Borealis (Mu UMa)
* Third Leap —  Talitha (Iota UMa) and Kappa UMa

Puzzle Solution

Three asterisms revealed! The pale green and red banding is airglow.
Bob King

Lots of skywatchers like making their own asterisms. Amateur astronomer Greg Furtman of Webster, Wisconsin, sees a stone skipping on water in a long arc of stars beginning with the "throwing arm" of the Big Dipper's Handle and ending half a sky later in southern Ophiuchus. And anyone who's used a telescope or finderscope to star-hop to a favorite deep sky object creates one temporary asterism after another to navigate their way from point A to the target.

Let me guess. You've probably created a few asterisms of your own. If you have, we'd love to hear from you. Just share your pattern in the comments section. Asterisms — they're everywhere!

Make-Your-Own Asterism

The imaginative Skipping Stones asterism follows a rock's progress from the "throwing arm" of the Big Dipper south all the way to 35 Ophiuchi. Each stellar pair or single star is a skip of the rock on a heavenly sea.

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Bob King

About Bob King

Amateur astronomer since childhood and long-time member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), Bob King also teaches community education astronomy and writes the blog Astro Bob. The universe invites us on an adventure every single night. All we need do is look up. My new book, "Wonders of the Night Sky You Must See Before You Die", a bucket list of essential sky sights, just published and available at Amazon and BN.

11 thoughts on “Asterisms for Winter Nights

  1. Anthony BarreiroAnthony Barreiro

    Thanks, this is a lot of fun. I first learned the bright stars of Winter as the Winter Circle, with Betelgeuse as the hub of the wheel. On a star map it might not look like a circle, but out under the sky it looks like a circle to me — quite possibly because that’s the way I learned to see it.

    I also like Tony Flanders’ “Really Big Dipper”: The Great Square of Pegasus as the bowl and the three bright stars of Andromeda and Algol as the crooked handle.

  2. Alan MacRobert

    In the Big Dipper’s bowl, the Sunken Crouton, a neat (but dim) triangle, shows just fine in the photo at the top of the page. Its long side is not quite half the length of the bowl, and the angle of the triangle opposite that side juts just a little below the bottom of the bowl. It’s obvious once you see it — in the photo and in binoculars.

    1. Bob KingBob King Post author

      Alan – That’s Sunken Crouton’s the best. Thanks for pointing it out. I also just like the name Andromegasus. Thanks for making me chuckle this morning 😉

  3. Ed-MarshallEd-Marshall

    Another interesting note on the “Heavenly G.” This asterism is the basis of the Gemini 6 Flight Patch. It would more aptly be the “Heavenly 6” or what I’ve always just called the “Big Number 6 in the Sky.” It starts at Capella (sorry Aldebaran!) goes through Castor and Pollux, on to Procyon and Sirius, and then up through Orion (Rigel, Bellatrix, and Betelgeuse) and then back over to Procyon. The flight patch was developed from the idea that Gemini 6 would be the first mission to rendezvous with an Agena target vehicle. This would be the star field that Schirra and Stafford would be looking into when they would be approaching the Agena to get a visual sighting. When the mission changed due to a launch problem, Gemini 6 would still rendezvous with another vehicle: the manned Gemini 7! I may be wrong about this, but I believe it still turned out to be the same star field when Gemini 6 was looking for Gemini 7 with Borman and Lovell aboard. (If you check out the flight patch, the “GT-6″ stands for Gemini Titan-6” Titan was the Gemini launch vehicle’s name.) More Fun!

  4. Kimberly-HermanKimberly-Herman

    One that I recently noticed is an arrow-shaped asterism north of Betelgeuse, and south of Zeta Tauri. I think the asterism is almost completely contained in the constellation of Taurus. It looks like a “this way to the Hyades” sign.
    I think I have only seen one other mention of it. Anyone know of this one?

  5. dave mccrarydave mccrary

    When I was young I saw Orion as a kite. with M42 pointing directly south as the kites tail and the belt stars as the upper left edge of the kite. I also called M45 Pleiades as a kitchen cleaver.

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