It’s time to kick off a little Winter Football with Orion and his Gang

24January 2021

If you’ve been a faithful frequent reader of my Skywatch column, first of all, thank you! You also know how much I love the winter constellations strewn out over the southeastern evening sky. My favorite nickname for them is “Orion and his Gang,” the constellation Orion being the gang’s centerpiece.

The Winter Football. Diagram courtesy of Mike Lynch

I do my best to describe how to take the whole gang in, but it can be confusing no matter how hard I try. This week I’m going to use the method called the Winter Football. It’s also known as the Winter Circle, Winter Hexagon or Winter Oval. Since an oval is the approximate shape of a football, and the NFL is working toward the end of the playoffs with the Super Bowl early next month, I’m going with the Winter Football. It’s made up of seven easy to see bright stars from six different constellations.

Head out early on a clear winter evening this month and face roughly toward the southeast. We’ll kick off with the brightest star we can see in the night sky. It’s Sirius, in the constellation Canis Major the Big Dog. Sirius marks the eye of the large celestial canine, and because of that, it’s often referred to as the “Dog Star.” You can’t miss Sirius. It’s not only the brightest star in the football, but also the lowest star. The famous three belt stars of the constellation Orion appear to point at the Dog Star. Astronomically, Sirius is one of the closest stars to Earth, a mere 50 trillion miles away, give or take.

From Sirius, take a visual pooch punt, a little to the upper left and you’ll arrive at Procyon, the second bright star in our celestial pigskin. Procyon is the bright star in the tiny constellation Canis Minor the Little Dog. About all there is to the little pooch is Procyon and a moderately bright star next to it called Gomeisa. I like to think of Canis Minor as a little heavenly wiener dog.

From Procyon, keep going to the upper left, and you’ll encounter two identically bright stars close to each other. Castor and Pollux are referred to as the twin stars of the constellation Gemini the Twins. They mark the heads of twin half-brothers Castor and Pollux, side-by-side in the night sky. Gemini is part of the Winter Football because the twins were very athletic, according to Greek and Roman mythology. I can see them as a quarterback behind a center. With stargazing, however, looks can be deceiving. While Castor looks like a single bright star to the naked eye, it’s actually three pairs of stars, all revolving around each other!

From Castor and Pollux, draw an imaginary line almost straight up, and you’ll arrive at the bright star Capella in the constellation Auriga the Charioteer. Capella marks the halftime show in our pursuit of tracing the Winter Football. Good luck seeing Auriga as a man driving a chariot. It looks much more like a lopsided pentagon. Supposedly the star marks a momma goat sitting on the chariot driver’s shoulder. Go figure!

From Capella, go to the lower right. You’ll hit a bullseye, literally. It’s the reddish star Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation Taurus the Bull. Aldebaran marks the angry red eye of Taurus, and the bull’s snout roughly resembles an arrow pointing to the right. Just above that little arrow is a small cluster of stars that resembles a mini version of the Big Dipper. That’s the Pleiades star cluster, a group of young stars that were all born together gravitationally. They’re over 400 light-years away, with just one light-year equaling nearly 6 trillion miles!

From Aldebaran, head down and a little to the right to reach Rigel, a very bright blueish star that marks the left foot of the mighty Orion the Hunter. Rigel is the most powerful star in the Winter Football by far. It’s almost as bright as Sirius, but it’s a lot farther away, around 800 light-years from Earth.

Just to the lower right of Rigel, we arrive back at Sirius. That’s it, the Winter Football. It’ll be available until April, but head out and tackle it as soon as you can!

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net. Mike is available for private star parties. You can contact him at mikewlynch@comcast.net.


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