Do you ever look up at a night sky teeming with stars and feel lost with wonder? Maybe you’ve heard the names of constellations but don’t have a clue as to how to begin to identify them? Don’t worry, because with some simple orientation and a little information about what to look for, you can very quickly gain confidence in your ability to pick out any number of constellations that commonly appear in the night sky.
How do you get started? First, you should use books or online resources to thoroughly familiarize yourself with the basic shapes of the constellations. Then, when you’re ready to see the real things, the very best advice for the novice stargazer is to get out into the countryside on a night with clear weather. City lights make stargazing an iffy proposition at best, and can seriously interfere with your ability to identify anything more than a random star or two in the sky. So visit a state park
or some similarly secluded area, find a nice spot with a clear view of sky, let the darkness of the night sky settle down around you, and get ready to familiarize yourself with some easily identifiable constellations!
1. The Big Dipper/Ursa Major, “The Great Bear”
This may be “cheating” a little bit because the Big Dipper is not technically a constellation, but part of a constellation known as Ursa Major. However, in the northern hemisphere the Big Dipper is usually the most identifiable pattern of stars in the sky, so it makes an excellent starting point to begin our orientation. Even the most novice stargazer is probably already familiar with the “cup” and “long handle” of the Big Dipper. It is most easily found during the summer months in the northernmost part of the sky. Once we have located the Big Dipper, we can learn to recognize that the handle is actually the head and neck of the “Great Bear” Ursa Major. The “cup” is actually part of the bear’s chest and his “front legs” extend from the cup’s bottom right corner. Understanding this helps us easily identify Ursa Major once we’ve located the Big Dipper.
2. The Little Dipper/Ursa Minor, “The Little Bear”
The Big Dipper is also the key to spotting the Little Dipper and its constellation Ursa Minor. Begin by looking at the two stars that form the right side of the “cup” and follow a straight sight line due north and you will see Polaris, the North Star, shining brightly. Polaris is the end star of the Little Dipper’s “handle.” The handle is actually the “Little Bear’s” tail, and the cup forms part of the bear’s side. When we locate the Little Dipper, we’ve also located Ursa Minor.
3. Orion, “The Hunter”
Orion is also one of the easiest constellations to spot in the night sky. Begin by looking for the three bright stars that form the straight line of the hunter’s belt. From there you should be able to make out Betelgeuse, the bright star that form’s the hunter’s armpit, and follow that east along the hunter’s arm, which is holding a bow. Other stars fill out the rectangle of the hunter’s upper body and, if you look carefully, you should be able to make out the hunter’s sword hanging from his belt.
4. Taurus, “The Bull”
Finding Orion makes it easy to find our next constellation, Taurus “The Bull.” Taurus is located above Orion and is often identified first by finding the large red star, Aldebaran, which is near the fork of the bull’s horns. The bottom “horn” is home to the Crab Nebula, and above the bull is another famous star cluster, the Pleiades. These clusters are quite beautiful, and can even be admired in some detail with the naked eye.
5. Gemini, “The Twins”
Orion is also key to locating the constellation Gemini. The twins can be found above and to the side of the hunter’s upraised arm. The constellation very much resembles two stick figure twins with outstretched arms touching. Begin by locating the two bright stars that serve as the twins’ heads and the rest of the pattern should be fairly simple to trace. Both twins have torsos arms and legs, and the twin on the left appears to be lifting a leg, perhaps doing a little jig.
Orion, Taurus and Gemini all follow the same pattern of visibility. They are best seen in the night sky beginning in December but fade out of sight by May. Beginning in August they can again be spied, but only in the hours before dawn.
Now, when you do make your way out into the wilderness and gaze up into the wondrous mystery of the star-filled night sky, you should have little problem identifying some of the most recognizable constellations. And with a little research and familiarization you can easily expand your repertoire to include more and more of the observable constellations throughout the year. And even though the night sky might seem a little less mysterious, its patterns will open up to you and make it all the more wondrous!