Looking for aurora tonight? Check out the Winter Hexagon + 2

This map shows the sky facing southeast around 8:30 p.m. local time tonight. The splendid gathering of stars – the Winter Hexagon – is just now coming into good view during early evening hours. The entire figure is quite large, starting with Sirius low in the south and topping out with Capella near the zenith. Stellarium

Update 9 a.m. Jan. 10: The blast of particles from the solar flare in big sunspot group 1944 was much weaker than expected. Some of it slid by Earth yesterday afternoon but only fired up auroras in Arctic latitudes that were in darkness at the time. There’s still one more chance for auroras tonight as the remainder of blast passes by.

– 12:05 a.m. Jan. 10: Still nothing visible from Duluth though there’s been a generally upward trend in activity over the past few hours. You can check the extent of the auroral oval HERE. The red line indicates the southern limit of aurora visibility. Though more technical, a good indicator of an impending aurora is the real-time Bz graph from the ACE spacecraft. If the red squiggly line dips sharply southward – toward the bottom of the chart (lower than -10) – be alert for potential northern lights.

While you’re out facing north hoping the aurora paints your sky tonight take a look around your backside to the south. Starting around 8-8:30 p.m. local time the complete Winter Hexagon – a beautiful hexagonal array of the brightest stars of the winter – tilts upward in the southeastern sky.

Each star or stars, as in the case of Castor and Pollux, which both belong to Gemini the Twins, heads up a particular constellation:

* Capella in Auriga the Charioteer
* Aldeabaran / Taurus the Bull
* Rigel / Orion
* Sirius / Canis Major the Great Dog
* Procyon / Canis Minor the Little Dog

What about the “+2″. These odd stars out – Betelgeuse and the planet Jupiter – aren’t part of the Hexagon but just happen to be fenced in by it. Count them all up and you’ve got nine shimmering sky objects, eight of which are first magnitude or brighter (Castor is magnitude 1.9) and located in the same tract of sky. What an attention grabber.

The Winter Hexagon with Jupiter in Taurus in 2012-13 (upper right) along with some insidious light pollution (lower right). Credit: Bob King

You might be surprised to know that winter skies are often more light polluted than those of other seasons. Streetlights and other forms of lighting reflect off the snow cover and bounce straight up into the sky. The difference is striking from where I live – the wash of light from the city reaches half again as high in the southern sky as during the fall.

The Hexagon’s concentrated radiance plus additional bright stars in the region leave the impression that winter is the clearest, darkest time of year when it may very well not be.

Parts of the world that don’t receive snow in the winter are better off, and if your haze and humidity levels are lower than as well, the winter stars may indeed sparkle that much brightly.

So enjoy the Hexagon tonight, and may a fine display of northern lights make you turn around the other way.

22 thoughts on “Looking for aurora tonight? Check out the Winter Hexagon + 2

  1. Hi.
    Are the lights going to happen tonight, or have they already happened? If not, does that mean that it will continue to be a possibility until tomorrow (past 12:00 AM)? This is my first time attempting to see the lights. I’m overly excited and really hoping that I didn’t miss it.

    Thanks.

    • Delaine,
      Before you invest time in travel, check if you can from your house first. Allow your eyes a few minutes to get used to the dark. I will also be doing updates this evening. The only problem for our region will be clouds. Even if it does happen, we may not see it.

  2. Hi Bob,
    spaceweather.com is saying 50% chance of severe aroura tonight in the mid latatitudes. Does that mean we in Southern California might see them?

    • Steve,
      That’s a good question. S. Calif. is far from the reach of the aurora -usually. But if we get a huge aurora in the n. US, you might just see a greenish glow above your northern horizon.

    • Neeley,
      If it’s clear there tonight, it’s worth looking out for them. As of right now, there’s nothing going on. I will update tonight as needed. Good luck!

    • Coleen,
      I update on the blog as long as I’m awake. You can sign up to my Twitter feed for fastest access. You’ll find the link at asteobob .areavoices.com Look in the upper right corner for the link.

  3. Hey AstroBob! Really cool site.

    Here’s the deal. I’m in Lake of woods, just on the Canadian border. I have a 15 minute drive and I can be on the lake, with an undisturbed view of the northern sky. Can I safely rely on updates from this site for potential views, or should I just make the drive and wait? It is sort of a hassle to organize the drive to the lake (ice fees and bridges over ice heaves), so if I can avoid the drive, it’d be nice. But, I don’t want to miss it either! Will you know if northern mn has a view? Reliably? I don’t mean to be condescending:, if I am.

    Levi

    • Levi,
      You’re certainly in a great place. How’s the sky – still clear? Auroral oval activity has continued to slowly increase but still not enough to see from Minnesota. I’m going to do a final update in a little while and I’ll include links for checking trends. As long as you have a decent view of the northern sky from where you’re at, do occasional checks during the night to see how it looks. If you see aurora then make the drive. The moon sets around 3 a.m. leaving a dark sky.

  4. Hi Bob, Thank you for your site. I am up all night at work in Green Bay and hoping that the clouds will clear a bit if/when the northern lights become visible tonight. I have never seen them before. I am looking forward to following your page! Jess

  5. Thanks for the reply!

    The sky here is stunningly clear, so I’m extremely optimistic. I have a partial view of the north, I’ll keep checking. I can actually hike across the Rainy River and get a better northern view. Perhaps later I’ll do that. Any indication of the lights, I’ll get on the lake.

    I look forward to your update. Thank you for this resource, AstroBob. You’re the man, man.

    Levi

    • You’re welcome Levi! I can picture where you’re at since I’ve been up to Lake of the Woods and the Rainy River. The sky is as vast as it gets from the lake. Dark too once that moon sets!

  6. I looked a number of times, but clouds came and I was disappointed.
    Do you have a way for me to sign up for blog updates by phone? I like to know when to check, and I can’t say am on my computer’s newspaper feed at midnight. But I would like a phone message.
    Also, I did turn around to see the southern sky while it was still totally clear about 8:45. Quite a lovely site, the Hexagon.
    Thanks for being such a great resource.
    Jeannette

    • Hi Jeannette,
      Yes, it was disappointing and today I’m going to make a call and find out why. This wouldn’t be the first or the 10th time that NOAA space weather has predicted such a strong chance of auroras with a no-show. I try to be philosophical about it – nature can be unpredictable even with all the knowledge we bring to bear to understand a subject. I’m not able to do phone updates however they are available from Spaceweather.com for $4.95/month.

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