Finding Constellations

By Lynne Rominger

When I was a little girl, my first grade class attended a planetarium show at a local community college. I still remember how mesmerized I was by the constellations. Later that night, I looked up into the sky and tried to find all those starry wonders I'd seen above me in the planetarium. Unfortunately, I didn't know where to look or what I was looking for. Only years later—when my own father started taking a serious look at the stars with a telescope—did I again look up into the night skies and seek out Orion, Callisto's Bear, the signs of the zodiac, and the dippers. Pretty soon thereafter, Halley Bop came around, and I was hooked. So enamoured am I today with astronomical occurrences that I make a habit of looking out my bedroom window each evening to see Venus with the naked eye. And there remains nothing as lovely as a cool evening spent quietly reaching for the stars.

You don't need a universe of equipment to enjoy the constellations. In fact, all you really need is a familiarization of the form of each constellation, knowledge of when you can see the various stars best, and a compass. You also need to have an idea of north, south, east, and west from where you stand.

Just by following a few simple steps, you'll gaze upon the same balls of hot, glowing gas that intrigued ancient Greeks, New World mariners, and people everywhere for centuries.

First Star I See Tonight    to top

As the Greeks and Romans of antiquity looked up in the skies, they noticed that certain stars formed a shape or pattern—often looking like people, mythological figures, or animals. They also noticed that the formations seemed to move. In reality, the stars don't move—we do. But because of all the movement, only certain constellations may be seen all year, and others may only be seen during certain months of the year.

Right now, I'll show you how to find four popular constellations, and hopefully pique your interest in stargazing. Now let's begin our odyssey of the heavens ....

It is important to note that our discovery of these few constellations does not constitute all the star formations available for your viewing pleasure. We're just diving into heavenly waters—not canvassing the ocean!

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First, you'll need to familiarize yourself with pictures of the star formations. There are several great books available, as well as star maps that show the shape of each constellation. You may know, for example, that Orion looks like two triangular boxes on top of each other ... when you connect the dots. But you'll need to really study a chart or picture, too, to really make sense of it. Otherwise, you'll get lost in space, per se, when you look up! A couple of good books are Find the Constellations, by Hans Rey and The Starlore Handbook: An Essential Guide to the Night Sky, by Geoffrey Cornelius. Or you may navigate online to for a map of the constellations. Once you've got your hands on a map, commit the shape of these constellations to your memory: The Big Dipper, Orion, Leo, and Scorpius.

Ready, Set, Gaze    to top

Even though you know what a few of the constellations look like now, before you embark on an exploration of the heavens, you'll require a few items to make your tour of the stars easier and more enjoyable—whether you'll gaze from your backyard or a spot in the hills. Bring along a flashlight, a jacket or blanket (it can get cold—especially while gazing the winter constellations), something to drink if you'll be away from home, and some binoculars (optional).

Twinkle Tale
Many astronomy clubs across the United States host "star parties." Together, the group gathers at a geographical point determined to be a good place to take a look at an astronomical event or constellation. With telescopes in tow, these luminary lovers enjoy the night skies together. For more information on star parties, look in your area phone book for Astronomy clubs.

Wide and Open    to top

Here we go. Picture it. You know what the various constellations look like on a map; now you need to find them in the sky. Let's go constellation by constellation on our short list:

  • The Big Dipper: The Big Dipper looks like a ladle in the sky. Although star gazing enthusiasts can see the Big Dipper all year, November and December are not good months for a clear perspective. Instead, opt for viewing during January through October. Hey, you've got ten good months of clear skies. Now, face north and visualize the seven stars that form the Big Dipper. Depending upon the time of year, you'll find the constellation either higher or lower in the heavens.
  • Orion: The Constellation Orion is also best seen during the winter months, from December to March. Just like the Big Dipper, Orion is composed of seven stars. The three in the middle of Orion look like his belt; thus, we call these three "Orion's Belt." Now, familiarize yourself with the shape of the constellation (when you connect the dots from star to star, it almost looks like a dress!) and look high into the Southern sky.
  • Leo: Kids will love finding the King of the Beasts when they view the constellation Leo. Nine stars compose this formation; they look like the mane, body, and tail of a lion. The five stars that make up the mane and the front of the lion look like a sickle in the sky. Familiarize yourself with the formation in a book, and then view Leo during the months of March–June by facing south and finding the sickle first.
  • Scorpious:Stargazers will find the Scorpio most brilliant under warm summer skies. Walk south along a temperate beach during July or August and look for a string of five stars that make up the scorpion's head. Now, look below the string for the scorpion's line and curve of body. Again, you'll want to familiarize yourself with the constellation online, in a book, or on a star map first.

Even though I've only shown you four constellations, I hope the star gazing bug bites you. If you find yourself yearning for more heavenly bodies to view, contact your local Astronomy Club and get into it. Or, take an astronomy class at a local college. Whatever you do, reach for the stars.

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