We have a nearly full moon lighting up the sky early this week, making evening stargazing a tough go. Instead, set your alarm around 5 to 5:30 a.m. and get an exceptional start to your day. You’ll get your first look at the winter stars and constellations.

In the early morning hours this week, all of us in Rochester are facing the same direction of space as we do in the early evening in mid-winter. That means you’ll see the same stars and constellations now as you will in the early evening mid-winter skies. Because of the combination of Earth’s orbit around the sun and Earth’s rotation on its axis, you can always preview what your evening skies will look like one season in advance when you stargaze in the pre-dawn hours.

So why do you want to see the winter constellations anyway?

Because in this stargazer’s opinion, they are the best ones in the heavens and worth setting your alarm to see.

When you’re out of the sack early, you’ll see the prime players of the winter evenings lighting up the southern half of the pre-dawn sky. I call this part of the sky “Orion and his gang” since there’s there are so many bright stars and constellations centered around the grand old man of winter, Orion the Hunter.

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Next to the Big Dipper, Orion is probably the most familiar pattern in the sky, and most of its stars are as bright as the Big Dipper.

I know you’ve seen Orion the Hunter before.

To me, it looks like a giant hourglass in the sky, but some see Orion as an oversized sideways bowtie. The biggest eye grabber is Orion’s Belt, three bright stars lined up perfectly in a row. Nowhere else in the sky can you see such a perfect row of bright stars. They are Mintaka, Alnilam, and Alnitak. Even though they’re so nicely lined up, like stellar ducks in a row, they have nothing to do with each other physically. These stars, in reality, are separated by hundreds of light-years. They just happen to fall into our line of sight that way.

To the upper left of the belt, at the hunter's right armpit, is the bright reddish star Betelgeuse (pronounced “beetle-juice”), the second brightest star of Orion. It’s one of the biggest single stars we can see with the naked eye. Betelgeuse is a red giant star that regularly swells out to nearly a billion miles in diameter. Our puny little sun has a waistline of less than a million miles. Betelgeuse, nearing the end of its life, is about 500 light-years away. If you’re new to this column, just one light-year is almost 6 trillion miles.

To the lower right of Orion’s belt is Orion’s brightest star, Rigel, at the hunter’s left knee. At almost 800 light-years away, it’s also a lot bigger and brighter than our sun. It’s nearly 70 million miles in diameter and kicks out about 60,000 times more light than our home star.

If Rigel were our sun, it would be 100 times larger in our sky. To be protected from sunburn from Rigel, I would recommend a sunscreen of about 3000 SPF. Don’t go cheap with the sunglasses either.

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and author of the book “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications. Send questions to mikewlynch@comcast.net.

The Rochester Astronomy Club welcomes new members and puts on public star parties. Their website is rochesterskies.org.