“You’ll never know what is written in the stars for you if you can’t read them.”
LEARNING THE CONSTELLATIONS
Look up at the night skies and try to connect the twinkling dots scattered across. You will be amazed to see the wonders that emerge. These often-recognizable patterns that you see are called constellations. The richness of the summer sky is summarized by the glory of the Milky Way, the galaxy that is tightly packed with countless twinkling diamonds. The Milky Way jewels include star clusters, nebulae, double stars, and variable stars. Trying to understand and analyze those countless twinkling specks in the night sky might seem a daunting task at first, but don’t worry. It is possible for us to attempt and familiarize ourselves with the stars.
Every one of us distinctly remembers the first day of school — walking into that campus and getting lost in a multitude of faces. That very day too, you probably made a couple of friends too, didn’t you? Through them, and eventually as you continued to go to school each day, you became acquainted with most of your schoolmates. Learning the constellations is very similar. To begin learning the constellations we can start with the ones that are easy to spot and as you get more and more familiar with the skies, you can attempt to broaden your constellation knowledge horizon too.
To get you started, here are 7 of the easily identifiable constellations you can try to find next time you are out stargazing. Other than a dark night sky, possibly away from the city lights, all you need for extra visual aid is a pair of binoculars/telescope and a handy poster showing the seven constellations.
This poster, featured in our Fall 2021 issue of Smore, is available for free download here.
1. URSA MAJOR
The best way to locate Ursa Major is to look for the Big Dipper asterism. This is predominantly the most easily recognizable constellation, that looks like a large spoon or perhaps a wheelbarrow.
Ursa Major is the third largest constellation in the sky, dominating an area of 1280 square degrees. Ursa Major constellation is visible round the year from most of the northern hemisphere and appears circumpolar over and above the mid-northern latitudes. From southern temperate latitudes, the main big dipper asterism is invisible, but the southern parts of the constellation can still be visible.
Centaurus is the ninth largest constellation seen in the sky, dominating an area of 1060 square degrees. It contains eleven stars with known planets.
The Alpha Centauri is the brightest star in the constellation, which is also the fourth brightest star in the night sky. Beta Centauri, the second brightest star in Centaurus, is the tenth brightest in the night sky. All in all, Centaurus contains eight named stars.
Cassiopeia is the 25th largest constellation in the night sky, filling up an area of 598 square degrees. It contains eight named stars. The brightest star in the Cassiopeia constellation is Schedar, Alpha Cassiopeiae
Cassiopeia is easily recognizable for the prominent W asterism formed by its five brightest stars. Spotted in the northern sky, the constellation is named after Cassiopeia, the vain and boastful queen in Greek mythology.
Crux is one most easily distinguished constellation. Centered on four stars in the southern sky it fills in a bright portion of the Milky Way. It is however, the smallest of 88 constellations occupying an area of only about 68 square degrees.
Crux is easily recognizable for its predominant cross-shaped asterism, the Southern Cross, formed by its five brightest stars. It contains six named stars, the brightest star in the constellation is Acrux, Alpha Crucis.
Orion is one of the highly recognized constellations, is visible high in the night sky through the year. It comprises of several projecting, bright stars including the red giant Betelgeuse (Alpha Orionis) at the upper left and blue giant Rigel (Beta Orionis) at the lower right. In the center is Orion’s “belt” comprising of three bright blue stars. The Orion Nebula is in his “sword” right below the belt, just visible to unaided eyes in very clear, dark, blue skies.
Carina constellation is located in the southern skies. The name means “the keel”, keel of a ship, in Latin. This is the 34th largest constellation in the sky, filling up an area of 494 square degrees.
Carina is composed of 11 stars ( five are named) with known planets and contains no Messier objects. The brightest star in the constellation is Canopus, Alpha Carinae. This constellation was originally a part of the much larger Argo Navis, which represented the ship Argo.
7. CANIS MAJOR
Canis Major is a constellation to be looked for in the southern skies. Its name means “the greater dog” in Latin. Canis Major has Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, as well as several other notable deep sky objects.
Canis Major is the 43rd biggest constellation in the sky and occupies an area of 380 square degrees. It contains ten formally named stars.
There are many more constellations in the night sky than we have listed here. There are also a number of available alternatives of online resources that can help you identify the location and shapes of constellations. You can also use apps like Starwalk to help you find the constellations in your neck of the woods.
Hopefully, this little introduction has been helpful to gain some reference for “star gazing” and “starry knowledge”. Be sure to download the poster and enjoy learning about constellations and how to connect the twinkling stars next time you go out for a night walk.
You can get your own copy of the Fall 2021 issue of Smore with the poster here.
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