Finding your way around the night sky

No 1. in a series created and compiled by Dave Armeson

First steps…

It’s not as difficult as you first think!

Starting out in astronomy at first seems a very daunting prospect. When I first got into stargazing nearly 40 years ago  I thought this is going to be difficult – but I was pleasantly surprised. When you learn just a few constellations it is surprising how everything else tends to start to fall into place – and a few months of perseverance you will start to gain a very satisfying working knowledge of the night sky. You should be able to identify nearly all the northern sky star patterns within a year of dedicated looking.

Observing tip: Try to pick an observing site that has as few car, street and building lights as possible. The more light pollution the fewer stars you will be able to see overhead. In addition, the horizon should also be free from tall trees and buildings, which will make it hard to find constellations close to the horizon.

Find Polaris – the Pole Star…

Polaris is the one star that (nearly) doesn’t move. If you extend The Earth’s axis of spin into space it points very close to where Polaris is in the sky. As the Earth rotates Polaris appears to stay where it is, and all other things in the sky appear to rotate (rise & set) around this point in the sky.

The classic method to find Polaris is to use two stars in the Big Dipper — Dubhe and Merak — as “pointers.” These two stars form the right-hand end of the “bowl” or “dipper” part of Ursa Major. Drawing an imaginary line in your mind from these two stars will point you straight to Polaris.

Finding the Polaris - the North Star
Ursa Major (The Great Bear) or “The Plough” end stars Merak & Dubhe point to Polaris – the North Star.

Finding your next constellation – Cassiopeia…

Cassiopeia “The Queen” was the 3rd constellation I leaned to find after Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. It is a prominent “W” shaped constellation in the Northern Sky that never sets from our latitude (a circumpolar constellation).  

Locating Cassiopeia in the night sky
Ursa Major (The Great Bear) or “The Plough” end stars Merak & Dubhe point to Polaris – If you continue past Polaris in a line you come to the “W” shaped constellation of Cassiopeia.

Cassiopeia lies in a rich area of The Milky Way and if you sweep this area in binoculars you will see thousands of stars in a rich star field background – an incredible experience.

The constellation Cassiopeia
The main five stars of Cassiopeia

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