- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 8, 2004

Vince A. Sempronio likes to show 1his 4-year-old son, Luca, the stars. As an amateur astronomer, Mr. Sempronio, 50, looks at the night sky from his back yard in Bethesda.

Gazing at the sky is a way to put human existence into perspective, he says. Staring into the heavens has been his hobby for about 40 years. He is a member of the National Capital Astronomers, a nonprofit organization that is the astronomy affiliate of the Washington Academy of Sciences.

“I have used my telescope to give others the same views of the objects that I have come to enjoy,” Mr. Sempronio says. “A lot of people have just seen the stars in books or magazines and have never seen an object, or even the moon, through a telescope.”

Wintertime is a good season to enjoy the stars and their constellations. With advancements in technology, most professional astronomers use computers to study the sky. Amateur astronomers and some professionals, however, still gaze at the stars with a naked eye.

Orion, the hunter from Greek mythology, is the most prevalent constellation in the sky during the winter, says Harold Williams, planetarium and physics lab coordinator at Montgomery College at Tacoma Park.

Although Orion can be seen almost anytime of year, when it is referred to as a winter constellation, it means it can be seen rising in the east in the evening hours. During summer, Orion appears in the sky during the early morning.

If a person watches the sky tonight around 9, Orion will appear on its side about 30 degrees above the horizon between east and southeast. Orion’s belt will be vertical to the horizon. As midnight approaches, Orion becomes vertical as it goes into the southern part of the sky.

“It’s the best constellation to learn first,” Mr. Williams says. “People see dippers all over, but hardly anybody sees Orion, except for where it really is in the sky.”

The brightest star in Orion is Betelgeuse or “Beetle Juice.” In the traditional way of drawing the figure, Betelgeuse is located in Orion’s armpit, Mr. Williams says.

Another bright star in the constellation is Bellatrix, which is to the right of “Beetle Juice.” The three stars of Orion’s belt, Mintaka, Alnitak, and Alnilam, are powerful as well. Below the belt is Rigel, a blue white star, because of its high temperature.

“Many of the constellation figures don’t look like the figures people draw,” Mr. Williams says. “The connected points are very strained, but Orion does look like it. Six of the stars are very bright. Once you get used to looking for it, you can find it all the time, but until you get used to looking for it, it’s not as easy.”

Once a person has found Orion, it’s easy to find other constellations in the sky, Mr. Williams says. The stars in Orion’s belt point to Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky in the constellation Canis Major, one of Orion’s hunting dogs.

After finding Sirius, people sometimes look for the constellation Gemini, which is depicted as two twins. It is best known for its two bright stars Castor and Pollux, the names of the twins. Between Castor, Pollux and Sirius is the constellation Canis Minor, in which Procyon is the brightest star.

Further, this year, Saturn is between Castor, Pollux and Canis Minor. Last year, Saturn also was in Gemini, but next year it will be part of the constellation Cancer.

“Saturn takes 33 years to go around the sun,” Mr. Williams says. “It’s a wandering star. It moves, just like the Earth does, around the sun.”

It’s important to have a star chart to help you find Orion and other constellations, says Elizabeth Warner, observatory director at the University of Maryland in College Park.

There is a group of bright stars that belong to different constellations that make a football shape when the dots are connected, Ms. Warner says. Sirius, Procyon, Saturn, Pollux and Castor, Capella, Aldebaran and Rigel make the design.

Also, the Big Dipper, which is part of the constellation Ursa Major, can be seen in the wintertime in the northeast. Around 9 tonight, the bucket will start to rise with the handle down into the trees. Make sure to look slightly to the right from due north, Ms. Warner says.

The two top stars of the bucket in the Big Dipper point at Polaris, the North Star, which is in the handle of the Little Dipper, a part of the constellation Ursa Minor. The North Star never appears to move because the Earth’s axis points toward it.

“A lot of us find it fascinating that there’s this universe out there, and we’ve explored so little of it,” Ms. Warner says. “It would be like being stuck in your bedroom and seeing out the window and wanting to go out there and explore and not being able.”

Since the stars have been a form of entertainment for people since the time of the Greeks and Romans, many of the constellations were named as stories were made about them, Ms. Warner says. For instance, the constellations Andromeda and Perseus depict a princess being rescued by a hero.

“People didn’t have TV, books or computers,” Ms. Warner says. “They played connect the dots. Then, they would make up stories about the patterns they made up. The good stories got handed down, and we learn certain constellations.”

Over the years, varying cultures in different hemispheres created multiple constellations using the same stars, Ms. Warner says. For instance, groups of stars in the Southern Hemisphere were given titles by the European explorers, such as Telescopium and Microscopium.

In 1928, the International Astronomical Union established 88 recognized constellations in the sky to make it easier for scientists around the world to communicate. Today the organization names celestial bodies.

The easiest way to tell the difference between stars and planets is that stars twinkle and planets don’t, says Sean O’Brien, staff astronomer at the Albert Einstein Planetarium in the National Air and Space Museum in Southwest.

“When you look at a star through a telescope, it will be a point of light,” Mr. O’Brien says. “Air bends the light from a star to make it twinkle. The pencil of light is very thin. You see the light on your eye and off your eye many times a second.”

A planet projects a thicker beam of light, Mr. O’Brien says. Even though the light from the planet bends on the eye, its fatter nature makes it more difficult for the light to be bend on and off the eye.

The activity of the atmosphere and city “light pollution” also can effect the clarity of the light from the stars and planets, Mr. O’Brien says.

When researching the objects in the sky, most professionals obtain data from a telescope operator at an observatory, who also gathers the information from a computer, says Geoff Chester, public affairs officer at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Northwest.

“There’s a certain amount of enchantment that’s lacking,” he says. “You can have a telescope run completely through the computer, that takes the observations for you, and post it on a Web site, and never have to leave your office.”

Despite the advancements in astronomy technology, Mr. Chester considers himself an amateur who is intimately acquainted with the patterns in the sky.

“Amateur astronomers are still pretty much in tune with the sky,” he says. “We’re typically sitting out on some remote field somewhere with a star chart and a telescope.”

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