Watching the Months and Seasons Change By Looking at the Stars

Clear SkiesBy Scott Levine

Every season, and even every month, have their own feel. Spring is different than summer, and there’s a certain indescribable difference between July’s and August’s muggy heat.

The same is true in the skies. There are bright lights that dominate winter. While, in the summer, other stars take over the night.

The skies don’t change the instant a new season comes along, though. There’s a slow but steady hand-off that happens over weeks and weeks, like with the weather here on Earth. Depending on where you look as April hands the night to May, we’re treated to the skies of three seasons, all in one night. If we want, we can even use the stars to look back on our lives.

As our skies dim these days, some of the first stars we see are in Orion, which are in the west now, starting the night in the setting half of the sky. His belt stars – Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka – stand out against the early evening’s glow. Thanks to the same optical illusion that makes a rising full moon look enormous, Orion looks positively gigantic, hovering above the distant hillsides.

As you look off into the twilight, consider that those stars have been with us since around Halloween. Night after night since, as we crossed the winter, they crossed the sky. Before long, they’ll vanish into the dusk until the trick-or-treaters come back.

Now, high toward the south and east, are the stars of the Spring Triangle – Arcturus, Regulus and Spica. Reddish Arcturus, which is a short way off the curve at the end of the Big Dipper’s handle, is an old, giant star that’s similar to the type our sun will grow into billions of years from now. So, in a way, looking at it is like looking at our own future.

These stars return to the night every February, when we need them to remind us that warmer weather and good things are on their way. Even when things are at their darkest and most difficult, they’re always a small bit of optimism.

And they’re right. Summer always seems to find a way. Another turn to the left brings us to the brilliant, blue Vega, which is just starting to make its way into late April’s nights, far toward the northeast. As these things go, Vega is one of the closest bright stars to us, only about 25 light years away. It’s kind of fun to try to imagine where you were when its light left for your eye.

Vega is part of a group of stars called the Summer Triangle, along with Altair and Deneb. Watch them as the weeks move along and let your mind drift to s’mores and cannonball contests. In July’s sticky nights, Vega crosses the dome almost directly overhead. Amazingly enough, these will stay with us until January, when they sink into the twilight, too, and hand the night back to Orion.

With May just about here again, the skies give us a chance to have another look at where we’ve been and where we’re going. We’ve been through a lot, but little by little good things are coming. I hope you’re well, and will look up this month.

Scott Levine (astroscott@yahoo.com) is an astronomy writer and speaker from Croton-on-Hudson. He is also a member of the Westchester Amateur Astronomers, who are dedicated to astronomy outreach in our area. For information about the club including membership, newsletters, upcoming meetings and lectures at Pace University and star parties at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, visit westchesterastronomers.org. Star parties are free and open to the public, but attendance is currently capped at 50 people, as required by state COVID-19 requirements.

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