2016-01-14 / Front Page

Orion Is ‘Star Attraction’ in Winter

Dark Sky Park Offers Comet Catalina Sighting, Trail System for Skiing and Hiking
By Erich T. Doerr


Mackinaw City resident Karen Hygh and yellow Labrador retriever Millie are among the local residents who enjoy using the trails at the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, day or night. They are pictured together here at the start of a walk in the park Thursday, January 7. Mackinaw City resident Karen Hygh and yellow Labrador retriever Millie are among the local residents who enjoy using the trails at the Headlands International Dark Sky Park, day or night. They are pictured together here at the start of a walk in the park Thursday, January 7. In the winter, many of Mackinaw City’s attractions are shuttered for the season, awaiting the return of tourists in the spring. The Headlands International Dark Sky Park is a notable exception. The park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year offering clear views of the skies at night and a popular system of trails during the day. The heavens will present an extra incentive to gaze skyward Sunday, January 17, when the comet Catalina passes the Earth.

Stargazing is available at the park every night that the sky is clear. Headlands Program Director Mary Stewart Adams recommends that those visiting the park in the winter dress warmly because of the park’s location on the Lake Michigan shoreline. Winds sometimes blow in off the lake.


The Headlands International Dark Sky Park in Mackinaw City is open every day of the year, offering trails for guests to use for hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. This trail runs alongside the park’s Lake Michigan shoreline. Thursday afternoon, January 7, it offered a scenic view of the chunks of ice bobbing up and down with the waves in the northern end of Trails End Bay. The Headlands International Dark Sky Park in Mackinaw City is open every day of the year, offering trails for guests to use for hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. This trail runs alongside the park’s Lake Michigan shoreline. Thursday afternoon, January 7, it offered a scenic view of the chunks of ice bobbing up and down with the waves in the northern end of Trails End Bay. Lack of moisture in the winter air means stargazers often enjoy a clearer, crisper view of the night sky during this season. While there aren’t as many meteor showers as there are during the summer, the portion of the Milky Way visible in the winter months is narrower, allowing a better view of the constellations in the sky. The constellations that are visible also change because of the Earth’s orbit around the sun. Summer constellations such as Capricorn and Aquarius are now behind the sun, so they give way to winter constellations such as Cancer and Leo.

The “star attraction” in the night sky during winter months is the constellation Orion, the Hunter, easily identified by the three stars that make up the hunter’s belt. Orion is only visible in the skies above northern Michigan during winter months. Orion’s belt arcs downward and points left toward Sirius, the brightest star in the sky and part of the constellation Canis Major.

“Orion is really exciting,” Ms. Adams said. “Sirius and the constellation Canis Major are to its left and below. The constellation Taurus the bull and its bright star Aldebaran are on the right and above near the Pleiades. That whole region of the sky is really lovely.”

The comet Catalina will pass closest to Earth Sunday morning, January 17, and will be visible on the eastern horizon in the Straits area. The comet should be visible through about 6 a.m. in the morning sky. Ms. Adams said the comet should be visible anywhere in the park where the horizon can be seen, with the park’s entrance being a likely location.

The skies will offer anther treat Monday morning, January 25, with a rare chance to see all five planets visible to the naked eye at the same time. People who look up about one hour before sunrise will find the planets Jupiter, Mars, Saturn, Venus, and Mercury in the southwest to southeast section of the sky. All five planets will appear as bright stars, with Venus as one of the brightest in the sky. Ms. Adams said there would be several bright stars out that morning and encourages local residents to look up and enjoy the sight.

Although the Headlands’ main attraction is stargazing, there is plenty to do at the park during the day before the stars come out. The park has a series of trails that wind throughout the property offering opportunities for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, and walking dogs. All of the trails are groomed regularly.

“A lot of people who live locally use it as a place to take a walk,” Ms. Adams said. “It’s a beautiful piece of property.”

Mackinaw City residents Tim and Karen Hygh are regular visitors to the park, using its trails for walking with their yellow Labrador retriever

Millie. The pair has been coming to the park for two years, more often during the summer, to observe the heavens. Mrs. Hygh said she enjoys the property’s trails for their good mix of hills and shoreline paths.

“The trails are well marked,” Mrs. Hygh said. “You can get a nice workout.”

The Dark Sky Park will host two events at its guest house in the coming months. The first Saturday, February 6, is titled “Is my horoscope really true?” and will look into the connections between Chinese, Vedic, Western, Jewish, Islamic, and Native American astrological traditions and how the similarities and differences of their cultures and rhythms relate to how their calendars have been developed across the millennia. Christian societies, for instance, use a sun-based calendar, while the Islamic calendar is based on the moon, instead.

The horoscope program has been scheduled close to the Chinese New Year Monday, February 8, since their calendar is based on a lunar cycle. The event will also be close to the new moon in February to optimize stargazing conditions.

“There will be no moonlight and it will be really dark,” Ms. Adams said. “We should have exceptional views.”

An event Saturday, March 5, is titled “Galileo’s Dream” and will feature a guest appearance from New Hampshire actor and educator Mike Francis, who will portray the famous astronomer. He will talk about Galileo’s research and how it was received in his day.

The park chose this program for March, Ms. Adams said, because it will be the best time this year to view the planet Jupiter. The gas giant planet will be prominent in the night sky throughout the month. In 1609, Galileo used a telescope to become the first person to observe Jupiter and its moons, helping prove to him that the universe did not orbit around Earth.

Some parts of the park are closed off now for the construction of the new observatory building, scheduled to open next fall. There are some trail closures related to the project and they are all marked. A warmer than normal winter meant the foundation work has already been completed for the building’s observatory area and program space.

“We are moving along on schedule,” Ms. Adams said.

Some attractions can occur at the park at any time, such as the aurora borealis, the northern lights. The lights can occur in the winter, she said, but they are more rare then and in this area they usually occur more close to the vernal and autumnal equinoxes.

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