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Jul. 17, 2018
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Winter night sky above Lanier sparkles

By Jane Harrison
 
The stars coming out over Lake Lanier this winter shine in a broad horizon on a dark stage. Sirius, Betelgeuse, and the Seven Sisters, celestial bodies that guided sailors long before the invention of modern navigation tools, sparkle from the night sky in a show beautiful by land and water.
 
Area stargazers can get a primer on viewing the guide stars and constellations in Stars Over Elachee, a monthly program conducted by Elachee Nature Science Center in Gainesville. The lakescape sets a big horizon distant from light pollution in cities, making lakeside or on-the-water views particularly spectacular, according to Robert D. Webb, a North Georgia astronomer who volunteers in the Elachee program. He or astronomy expert Debbie Deroche take program guests on monthly tours by land during the first quarter moon to see who’s on the night stage. Participants can reserve a telescope and see craters on the moon, the red glare from Betelgeuse, or Aldebaran, the orange blaze of Taurus the Bull’s eye.
 
The galaxy tour guides set up the outdoor viewing gallery in the parking lot at Chicopee Lake, Elachee property on Calvary Church Road in Gainesville. Night tourists in winter can bundle up or bring a lounge chair and blanket to recline to watch the most dazzling shows of the year in January and February. “The winter stars are brighter,” Webb said, due to their proximity to the earth this time of year when earthlings face the spiral arm of the galaxy. We can peer into space beyond our galaxy’s borders and see sharper views less obstructed by the Milky Way’s galactic dust.
 
Webb noted other reasons why winter is prime time for star gazing. Some of the most prominent stars in the galaxy show up this season. And, spectators don’t have to stay up late to see them. Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest of the winter sky, comes out at sunset, around 5:30 p.m. this month. The constellation, Orion the Hunter, which contains more bright stars than any other, stalks across the sky in winter.
 
Webb explained an easy tracking method to find a winter triangle of prominent stars. First, locate Orion, a familiar constellation recognizable by the three stars of his belt. Scan up to his shoulder to locate the center of the triangle, Betelgeuse, a red super giant 625 light years from earth. Diagonally to the right from Betelgeuse reigns Rigel, a blue super giant 860 light years away. Using Orion’s belt as a landmark, it’s also possible to spot the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, a star cluster that premieres in November and is viewable all winter. Orion’s two faithful dogs accompany him. To his left, Canis Major, the Big Dog, contains Sirius, the brightest star in our sky. Taurus the Bull, and the Gemini, The Twins, are also easy to spot in the winter sky.
 
Wondering about how the constellations got their names? Elachee’s astronomy experts double as excellent storytellers, weaving in ancient myths about the stars and constellations making their appearance this season.
 
The presentation includes a session on how to set up a telescope, with which participants can actually see the pockmarked face of the moon and various hues of stars. Plus, guests get a star chart for the month and a fill-in-the-blank worksheet to test their star acumen. Families, couples and individuals attend each month with the opportunity of seeing beyond earth’s realm into the vastness of the universe. Some might find it brightens the bleakness of winter to see the lights of the night sky with others who seek them.

Stars Over Elachee
  • Winter programs: 5:45-7:45 p.m. Jan 27, 6:16-8:15 p.m. Feb. 24
  • Where: Chicopee Lake, 2100 Calvary Church Rd., Gainesville.
  • Registration: Register in advance, reserve a telescope, $10 adults, $5 children 8-12, free to Elachee members.
  • Contact/More Info: 770-535-1976, www.elachee.org.
  • Note: Suggested for adults and children age 8 and older. Bring flashlight and pencil. Dress for cold weather.


Posted online 12/27/17
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