Asterisms are imaginative star patterns that are not among the 88 officially recognized constellations. The Big Dipper is the most famous example; this asterism includes the more well known stars of the constellation Ursa Major, the Big Bear. Another asterism is the Winter Hexagon.
This is a really huge, six-sided pattern imagined by connecting six of the numerous brightest stars of the Northern Hemisphere’s winter evening sky. Look south in early evening.
Start with the most brilliant star of the night sky, Sirius, visible around 8 p.m. in early February in the southeast. This glorious blue-white "gem" is part of Canis Major the Big Dog and shines to the lower left of the famed Orion constellation.
Going clockwise trace a line to the upper left of Sirius to the bright yellow star Procyon (in Canis Minor the Little Dog); then up to either Castor or Pollux, the bright pair of stars marking the "heads" of Gemini the Twins.
Next, trace a line to the upper right, nearly overhead to find the bright yellow star Capella (Auriga the Chariot Driver).
Then head to the lower right to the bright red-orange star Aldebaran (in Taurus the Bull).
From there, head to the lower left to the bright white star Rigel, the western "foot" of Orion the Hunter.
Lastly, finish the hexagon by connecting Rigel with Sirius to the lower left.
The bright red-orange star Betelgeuse shines off-center, within the hexagon. Betelgeuse marks the top left "shoulder" of the Orion figure.
Constellations and asterisms serve as handy markers to help us remember the stars, which otherwise appear as a glorious scattering of points of light bright and dim.
Several asterisms are popularly recognized. Many backyard observers no doubt make up their own, even in the view of the telescope eyepiece.
They can help us to "star hop" to a destination in the sky, be it a faint galaxy, star cluster, nebula or other celestial wonder. While a lot of telescope users rely on the modern computerized method of entering coordinates and watching the telescope slew to your desired target, others such as yours truly prefer to explore the old fashioned way.
Using detailed star charts in a star atlas, one may reach a target by first pointing the telescope at a naked-eye star close to the target, using the small "finder" scope attached to the main telescope. Then, using the charts, carefully move among the fainter stars in a low-power eyepiece from asterism to asterism - perhaps a "line," a "triangle" or an imaginative pattern we come up with, such as a bunch of stars outlining a "cigar" or a "fish hook" till you get to the spot. Your series of little asterisms help you to remember how to get there the next time!
New Moon is on Monday, February 4; after that watch for the crescent Moon in the southwestern sky after sunset.
Keep looking up!
Peter Becker is Managing Editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, PA. Notes are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please mention in what newspaper or web site you read this column.