Favorite Star Patterns

Meet the Winter Circle, aka the Winter Hexagon

Winter Hexagon Chart: Hexagon outline with Orion and Canis Minor, several labeled stars, and line of ecliptic going across.
The Winter Circle (or Winter Hexagon) isn’t a constellation. It’s an asterism, made of bright stars in the winter evening sky for the Northern Hemisphere (and summer sky for the Southern Hemisphere). Chart via Chelynne Campion/ EarthSky.

The Winter Circle or Winter Hexagon

The Winter Circle (or Hexagon) is a large circular pattern, made of some of the brightest stars in the Northern Hemisphere’s winter sky (or the Southern Hemisphere’s summer sky). It isn’t a constellation. It’s an asterism, or prominent group of stars that form a noticeable pattern. In addition, the Winter Circle has a smaller asterism inside it, called the Winter Triangle.

The Winter Circle is big! Strictly speaking, you’ll see this circular pattern of 1st-magnitude stars – the brightest stars in our sky – from six different constellations: Rigel in Orion the Hunter, Aldebaran in Taurus the Bull, Capella in Auriga the Charioteer, Pollux (and its forever companion Castor) in Gemini the Twins, Procyon in Canis Minor the Lesser Dog and Sirius in Canis Major the Greater Dog. Also, an additional 1st-magnitude star, Betelgeuse in Orion the Hunter, lies toward the center of the Circle.

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Stars in a large hexagon labeled with moon near center.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Prateek Pandey in Bhopal, India, shared this image of the Winter Circle (the star Castor added to the Hexagon) on April 18, 2021. He wrote: “Moon and Mars in the Winter Circle.” Thank you, Prateek!

When is the Winter Circle (or Hexagon) visible?

So, like all stars, those in the Winter Circle rise and set some four minutes earlier with each passing night. Indeed, by late January, the Winter Circle will have risen high enough above the northeastern horizon so it’s visible by about 7 p.m. local time. Then, if you look around midnight, the Winter Circle will be high above the southern horizon. And later, after about 3 a.m. local time, it sinks toward the southwestern horizon, with some of it setting in the west before sunrise.

Then, in late February and early March, the Winter Circle is in your southern sky at nightfall and early evening.

Night sky scene with hexagon and figures of constellation superimposed over top stars.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Jose Zarcos Palma in Mina Sao Domingo, Mertola, Portugal, took this image of the Winter Circle on December 26, 2022. Jose wrote: “I planned this composition to catch the great Winter Circle in an early stage of its ascension just behind the abandoned mining ruins of Achada do Gamo. We can clearly see Sirius in the Canis Major the Greater Dog near the chimney on the right side, just below Orion the Hunter. On top of the image, the planet Mars is near Aldebaran in Taurus the Bull.” Thank you, Jose!

Finding the Winter Circle

First, to find the Winter Circle (or Hexagon), find the easily recognizable constellation of Orion the Hunter. Indeed, its three belt stars give it away. Then, look for the bright bluish star to the lower right. This star is Rigel, the southwest corner of the Winter Circle and the first of the six stars in the Circle. By the way, Rigel is the brightest star in Orion and the seventh brightest star in the night sky.

Now draw a line through Orion’s Belt stars upward to find Aldebaran, the ruddy eye of Taurus the Bull. Aldebaran is the second star in the Circle and the brightest star in Taurus. As a matter of fact, Aldebaran is the fourteenth brightest star in the sky.

Next, continue upward in a counterclockwise direction to find the next bright star, Capella in Auriga the Charioteer. Capella is the third star on our journey and the northernmost point of the Winter Circle. In fact, Capella is the sixth brightest star in the heavens.

Completing the Circle

Then, as we start to wind down the other side of the Circle, we run into two bright stars, the Twins Stars in Gemini the Twins. Pollux, the brighter of the two, is our fourth corner in the Circle, and you’ll notice its “twin,” Castor, is just a bit fainter. Pollux is the sky’s 17th brightest star, and Castor is the 24th.

Our second-to-last stop around the Winter Circle is the bright star below the Twins Stars, Procyon. Procyon is the brightest star in Canis Minor the Lesser Dog, and in fact one of only two named stars in the constellation. For such a “minor” constellation, Procyon shines brilliantly as the seventh brightest star in the sky.

Finally, we come down to the southernmost star in the Winter Circle and the brightest of them all: Sirius in Canis Major the Greater Dog. Sirius is the brightest star in the Winter Circle and in the entire night sky. In fact, only the moon and some planets can outshine Sirius.

Finding the Winter Triangle

After you’ve found the Winter Circle, look inside it to find another asterism. That’s the Winter Triangle. First, take the last two stars of the Circle, Sirius and Procyon, then head toward the center of the Circle. That’s where you’ll find reddish star Betelgeuse, marking the shoulder of Orion. Betelgeuse makes the third corner of the Winter Triangle. Betelgeuse is the 10th brightest star in the sky and second brightest star in Orion.

Procyon, Betelgeuse and Sirius form a triangle.
Procyon, Sirius and Betelgeuse are easy to find on winter and spring evenings. Plus they form a large pattern of 3 bright stars, known as the Winter Triangle. Chart via Chelynne Campion/ EarthSky.
Starry sky with constellation lines drawn in for Orion and the winter triangle.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Cecille Kennedy of Depoe Bay, Oregon, captured this image on February 23, 2023, and wrote: “Orion appears as a beautiful giant hunter in the night sky. Orion continues to march westward and, in a few months, will disappear from the northern sky, lost in the glare of the sun. The Winter Triangle consisting of the stars Sirius, Procyon and Betelgeuse was also highly visible, as well as the Pleiades, Aldebaran of constellation Taurus, and Elnath of constellation Auriga. It was a rare beautiful night for stargazing!” Thank you, Cecille!

The Circle is big and contains areas of the Milky Way

Furthermore, to get an idea of the Circle’s humongous size, the span from the southernmost star, Sirius, to the northernmost star, Capella, covers about 1/3 of the dome of the sky.

Then for a bonus, on a dark and clear moonless night, you can see the soft-glowing river of stars that we call the Milky Way meandering right through the center of the Winter Circle.

Bottom line: The Winter Circle, aka the Winter Hexagon, is a giant shape made from some of the brightest stars in the sky, including Rigel, Aldebaran, Capella, Pollux, Procyon and Sirius.

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January 24, 2024
Favorite Star Patterns

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