ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Astro Bob: Mars transforms Winter Hexagon into Winter Heptagon

The familiar Winter Hexagon just grew a new side!

Winter Heptagon
Now through Feb. 13, Mars transforms the Winter Hexagon asterism into a seven-sided figure called a heptagon. You can see the giant geometrical assemblage of winter's brightest stars in the southeastern sky starting around 9 p.m. in late December.
Contributed / Stellarium with additions by Bob King
We are part of The Trust Project.

Bright patterns of easily recognizable stars that aren't official constellations are called asterisms. Even casual skywatchers are familiar with them. Examples include the Big Dipper, Orion's Belt and the Great Square of Pegasus. So is the Summer Triangle, which we visited in a recent column. Let's now set our sights on winter's most famous asterism, the Winter Hexagon.

I've described the Hexagon in previous posts, but it's worth revisiting because the figure so dominates the sky from late December through February. It also happens to be undergoing a mid-life crisis right now, popping out an additional side to become a seven-side heptagon. How so? Blame on that upstart planet Mars.

Winter Hexagon wide
This wide-angle view shows what the Winter Hexagon looks like without Mars.
Contributed / Bob King

The Red Planet had been tucked inside the Hexagon in eastern Taurus up until this week. As you're well aware, planets are always on the move. Mars has been traveling westward in retrograde motion for some time and now resides above the orange-red star Aldebaran in western Taurus. Freed of its six-sided cage, the Red Planet now contributes an additional plank to the familiar figure, making it into a heptagon.

Mars retrograde loop
This composite photo shows Mars's changing position over seven months in 2003 when it was at opposition and closest to Earth. Whenever Earth — the faster planet — passes Mars at opposition, as it did this season, the Red Planet loops westward in retrograde motion for a couple months before resuming its normal eastward motion. The photo also captured the changing position of Uranus as a series of tiny blue dots.
Contributed / Tunc Tezel

We'll get to enjoy this geometrical flight of fancy for the next six weeks. In fact, it will look even more heptagon-ish in early January as Mars continues to press west. On Jan. 12, the planet puts on the brakes and reverses course, turning back to the east. And a little more than a month later on Valentine's Day, it burrows back into the Winter Hexagon, and the Heptagon will be no more.

Nearly all of winter's brightest stars occupy the vertices of the Hexagon, which spans 66 degrees from top to bottom (Sirius to Capella) and 46 degrees from side to side (Procyon to Aldebaran). If you make your fist into a ball and hold it vertically against the sky, that's equal to 6 1/2 by 4 1/2 fists!

ADVERTISEMENT

Sirius and sun
The star Sirius measures 1.5 million miles (2.4 million kilometers) across or 1.7 times the size of the sun. It's located 8.6 light-years away and has a surface temperature of of 17,000° F — about 7,000° F hotter than the sun and the reason it appears whiter in comparison.
Contributed / Wikipedia

Sirius glimmers at the bottom, low in the southern sky, while Capella shines from nearly overhead. Each star is at least as bright as first magnitude and heads up a different constellation, one of the reasons the asterism is so useful — find all six suns, and you've got six easy entry points into each star group. For a localized map showing each constellation in greater detail, check out skyandtelescope.org/interactive-sky-chart .

Winter "G"
By including bright Betelgeuse we can picture a giant letter G instead.
Contributed / Stellarium with additions by Bob King

Sirius is brightest, followed by Capella, Rigel, Procyon, Aldebaran and Pollux. Sirius is the alpha star in Canis Major the Big Dog; Procyon in Canis Minor the Small Dog; Pollux in Gemini the Twins, Capella in Auriga the Charioteer; Aldebaran in Taurus the Bull and Rigel in Orion the Hunter. Only Betelgeuse stands off by itself. To include it in the gang, skywatchers have reworked the Hexagon into a giant letter "G."

Another great thing about the Winter Hexagon is that all of its stars are visible even in bright moonlight, so you can see it anytime during winter up through mid-spring. Right now, all its stars are up around 9 o'clock, but by mid-January the pattern rises a full hour earlier.

I wasn't particularly good at geometry in high school. I loved learning about all the different types of polygons but recall that geometrical proofs taxed my young brain. One thing I can promise — the Hexagon-Heptagon will make you a whiz at night-sky observational geometry in no time.

Related Topics: SCIENCE AND NATURE
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer and retired photographer for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at nightsky55@gmail.com.
What To Read Next
Although a full moon will interfere, Comet ZTF will pass right next to one of the sky's brightest stars Sunday night.
Our February event calendar highlights Comet ZTF and Mars, Venus and Jupiter at dusk and a stellar reminder of spring.
How to see returning comet 96P/Machholz as it feels the heat.
For observers in the southern U.S. the moon will cover Mars on Monday night, Jan. 30. Elsewhere we'll see a very close conjunction.