Smith College Professor and author Meg Thacher’s children’s book “Sky Gazing” offers young readers a tour of our solar system and teaches sky gazers how to find planets and constellations in both hemispheres.
In this digital extra, Thacher shares some tips and advice for amateur star gazers.
Watch the full interview with Meg Thacher here.
Read the full transcription:
Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: So, Meg, we are coming on the winter season.
Can you talk to us about some tips and tricks for amateur star and sky gazers and what can we expect to see in the winter sky?
Meg Thacher, Author and Educator: Well, the winter sky is my favorite time of year. Partly because the nights are so long, so the sun sets really early, so even little kids can go out and see the stars. But the other reason is that everybody’s favorite constellations are up during the wintertime.
So, you’ve got Orion — it’s just this big, bright constellation that most people know. And you can find a lot of other constellations from Orion. It’s the center of what’s called the Winter Hexagon. And if you go clockwise, starting above Orion, you’ve got Gemini Auriga, Taurus, Canis Major and Canis Minor. And they all have very bright stars in them and they and they’re very easy to find, if you know Orion. And that’s one of the best ways to find constellations if you’re new to it.
Just if you know the Big Dipper, then look at the Big Dipper and look at a star chart, and figure out where other constellations are compared to the Big Dipper. And the same thing with Orion.
Orion’s really nice because it’s got that those three bright stars of the belt and they point up to Taurus and they point down to Canis Major.
Zydalis Bauer: Part of your book shares different stories behind the constellations from different cultures.
What have been some of your favorite ones that you’ve discovered?
Meg Thacher: Well, Orion is very fun. The constellations that we recognize today, mostly come from Greek and Roman legends.
So, Orion was a great hunter, and he was in love with the Pleiades, who were the beautiful daughters of Atlas and Pleione. And Atlas in Greek mythology was the guy who held up the Earth. And they didn’t like Orion, and he kept chasing them around and it was driving them crazy.
And so they complained to their father, and their father said to the gods, “If you don’t fix this problem, I’m going to shake the Earth and there are going to be earthquakes. So, figure it out. Your hunter is driving my daughters nuts.” So, the gods put Orion and the Pleiades all into the sky.
And what’s really great, is if you watch the stars rise and set — the stars rise and set just like the Sun and the Moon do — and as they go along through the night, Orion will follow the Pleiades. But they’ll never — he’ll never catch up. So, everybody’s happy.
Everybody who looks at stars — every culture has different stories about the stars, so the one that I have in my book is from the Nama-Khoe Khoikhoi people of southwestern Africa, and they tell a story of three zebras.
So, the three stars of the belt of Orion are three zebras. And the star Aldebaran, a bright star in Taurus, is a hunter, and he is married to the Pleiades, who are also seven sisters. They’re the the daughters of the sky, and they send him out with only one arrow to hunt these three zebras.
And he twangs his bow and arrow, and he shoots them and he misses completely. And he can’t go and retrieve his arrow because Betelgeuse, one of the bright stars in Orion, is lying in wait. It represents a lion in this particular story.
There are some Australian or Aboriginal groups who also see Orion as a hunter. There are others who see Orion as a canoe. The two bright stars and the three, is three hunters riding in a canoe. So, all cultures are talking about the sky.
And what’s really interesting is most cultures refer to the Pleiades as the Seven Sisters. And if you look at the Pleiades with your naked eye, you can only see six of them.
Just about every culture has a story about how there used to be seven sisters, and now there are only six. That one disappeared for some reason.
Zydalis Bauer: Now, talk to me a little bit about some of the events that are upcoming during the winter season.
Meg Thacher: Right. So, you’ll see Jupiter and Saturn and Venus, three bright planets. Just as the Sun sets look into the West and the three of them will be in a straight line. And the moon, as the phase changes, it will move through that line of the three bright planets.
We’ve also got a couple of meteor showers coming up. The Geminids are visible from November 13th to December 22nd, and their brightest on December 14th. Unfortunately, there is going to be a full moon right around the time of the Geminids, so you’re not going to necessarily be able to see them well. You can look at the constellation of Gemini at about 1:00 in the morning to look for those. So, look a little bit before or a little bit after the full moon.
And then, in early January are the Quadrantid meteors. And they’re just a little bit to the left of the Big Dipper at about 5:00 in the morning. And the Moon will be new at that time, so we’ll get a really great Quadrantid shower.
Zydalis Bauer: And real quick, can you just describe how can people identify — how do they know if it’s a star or a planet?
Meg Thacher: Oh, good question! Well, I’ve already told you where Jupiter, Saturn and Venus are, so they’re in a straight line, coming up from the from the sunset. There are a couple of ways to figure out what is a planet and what’s a star.
Stars twinkle, and planets don’t twinkle as much as stars do, so they they shine with a very steady light. They’re also very, very bright. They look just like stars, but they’re very bright compared to other stars.
The best way to find a planet is to look it up online and just find out where the planets are. Or, use a star chart. And if you see a really bright star that’s not on your star chart, it’s probably a planet.