January: Star Names and Harry Potter

January 2011

Star Names and Harry Potter

By Calvin L. Chrisman

As we enter January, we are presented with a dazzling panorama of bright, beautiful stars. Of the twenty-five brightest stars, eleven are in the winter constellations. They are visible in the evening and night sky at this time of year. The most widely recognized winter constellation is Orion, the hunter. In January, Orion is visible in the southeastern sky by early evening. Most people recognize the three stars that constitute his belt, along with several stars seen as his sword hanging down from the belt. The center “star” is actually the Orion Nebula. It is a star-forming region full of both glowing and dark dust lanes and is an extraordinary sight in a telescope. Orion’s right shoulder (to the left as we look at him) is a red star called Betelgeuse. It is a variable star which changes its intensity over a seven year period, but is the eleventh brightest star at its peak. Orion’s left shoulder is called Bellatrix while his left foot is a blue star called Rigel and is the seventh brightest star in the sky.

Orion is said to be hunting Taurus the bull. Taurus is to the South (right as you look at the sky) of Orion. The head of the bull is represented by a triangle or wedge of stars. Its bright red eye, Aldebaran, is the thirteenth brightest star. In or near this formation are two exquisite open-clusters of stars, the Hyades and the Pleiades. Faint stars like these are sometimes best viewed with what astronomers call “averted vision”. Instead of looking directly at them, look slightly to the side. Your eyes have more dark sensitivity away from the center of the pupil.

Rising behind Orion is the constellation Gemini, the twins. The heads of the twins are represented by Castor (twenty-third brightest) to the right and above red Pollux (seventeenth brightest). In a small telescope with magnification of 100x or greater, Castor will appear to be a double star. Only the largest professional telescopes will show that is actually six stars!

If you follow the line of Orion’s belt down toward the horizon, it will lead you to Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. It is in the constellation Canis Major (the big dog) and is known as the Dog Star. Between Sirius and Gemini is another bright star, Procyron, in Canis Minor (the little dog). One legend is that the dogs are helping Orion hunt the bull while another says that they are waiting under the twin’s table for scraps.

Draco Malfoy
Draco Malfoy


Draco the Constellation
Draco the Constellation

Harry Potter fans may notice that many of the names used by J.K. Rowling are star names, including Sirius, Bellatrix and Pollux, mentioned above. Some others include Andromeda, which is both a constellation and a galaxy; Draco, a constellation always visible in the northern sky; Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo and Arcturus, a star in the constellation Bootes.

If you are willing to brave the January cold, the Zodiacal Light will be visible starting about February 19th and extending into early March. The Zodiacal Light is a luminous triangle of light which will be visible about 80 minutes after sunset in the western sky. It is a vague but large phenomenon caused by the reflection of the Sun’s light through cosmic dust which follows the plane of the solar system. At our latitude, it will appear to be tipped to the left (south) as you observe it and can be hauntingly beautiful.

Clear Skies!

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