Winter Milky Way

StarDate: December 18, 2009

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The winter Milky Way is little more than a shadow of its summer incarnation. But if you can get away from city lights, it still puts on a nice display -- an exhibition courtesy of the outskirts of our home galaxy.

Look for the Milky Way arching high across the north around 8 or 9 o'clock. Its hazy patches of light are the glow of millions of stars in the disk of the Milky Way galaxy. At this time of year, though, we're looking away from the crowded center of the galaxy -- the part that's visible during summer -- and toward the wide-open spaces of the galaxy's rim.

Over in the west, the glowing band of the Milky Way is anchored by one of the most prominent star patterns in all the night sky: the Northern Cross -- the brightest stars of Cygnus, the swan. It stands almost straight up from the horizon. The swan's tail -- the star Deneb -- marks the top of the cross.

Another prominent star pattern stands high in the north, at the highest point of the Milky Way's arch: Cassiopeia, the queen. It looks like a letter M.

And over in the east, the Milky Way sort of snakes between bright stars. Yellow-white Capella and pure white Procyon stand on one side -- Capella high in the sky, Procyon quite low -- with the orange stars Aldebaran and Betelgeuse on the other side. So even if you can't see the Milky Way, at least you'll know it's there -- outlined by some of the bright, beautiful stars of winter.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009

For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.

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