A Quick-start Guide to Stargazing
Stargazing is a fun activity when spending time outdoors at night, and though all those points of light can feel overwhelming, the night sky doesn’t have to be a complete mystery.
Use this guide to identify some commonly seen star patterns and constellations in the Northern Hemisphere.
As children, many of us were captivated by the night sky, the glowing points of light that hint at a much wider universe. Perhaps you heard some of the stories associated with the constellations, or maybe you visited a planetarium where the laser pointer connected the stars to illuminate the pattern.
If you’ve lost the habit of stargazing, take heart. You can learn to identify some of the most common patterns with just a little practice. This blog post will explain how to find a few well-known star patterns and constellations, particularly during the warmer months of the year.
The Big Dipper
Most people have heard of the Big Dipper, a group of seven bright stars that looks like—you guessed it!—a dipper or ladle, seen as a long handle with a rectangular spoon at the end.
Figure 1: The Big Dipper
It’s a useful star pattern for beginners to learn because its bowl and handle are easy to spot. In the southeastern United States, the Big Dipper is visible on most clear nights, and can be seen by looking to the North. On summer nights, the dipper portion is tilted downwards, looking like it is spilling its contents.
The Big Dipper is not a constellation but a pattern of stars. It belongs to the constellation known as Ursa Major, the Greater Bear, and marks the Bear’s tail and rear.
Now that you can identify the Big Dipper, you can use it to find a few other star patterns and constellations.
The Little Dipper
Start with the Big Dipper, and then draw a mental line between the two stars on the outer portion of the dipper. This line will point you towards Polaris, the North Star, which marks the outer handle portion of the Little Dipper.
Polaris is also a useful star to know because it can serve as a reliable reference for navigation.
Keep in mind that although you can likely find Polaris, you’ll need a particularly dark sky to find all the stars in the Little Dipper, as it’s just not as bright as the Big Dipper.
The Little Dipper also is not a constellation but a pattern of stars. It belongs to the constellation known as Ursa Minor, the Little Bear
Now that you’ve identified the Big Dipper and Polaris, the North Star, you have the key to another constellation.
Remember that imaginary line we drew on the Big Dipper to find Polaris? Stay on that path to pass Polaris and you’ll end at a distinctive “W” shape, which marks the constellation Cassiopeia.
Figure 2: Cassiopeia. Image from https://earthsky.org/constellations/constellation-cassiopeia-the-queen-lady-of-the-chair-how-to-find-history-myth/
You may recognize the name from Greek mythology, in which gods frequently punish mortals for expressing vanity or hubris. The story of Queen Cassiopeia follows this familiar plot-line. She boasted of her beauty, and her arrogance and vanity got her banished to the heavens, where we can look upon her in the sky.
If you like to read your horoscope, then Leo should be a familiar name, as this constellation is one of the ones that compose the zodiac on which astrology is based.
Many believe Leo the lion is one of the easiest constellations to see; however, it’s best seen in spring. By July, the constellation has faded into the sunset and cannot be seen again until fall.
Once again, let’s begin by finding the Big Dipper.
If you’re looking in late spring, Leo is found by identifying the Big Dipper, which at this time should be nearly upside down. Find the two outermost stars of the dipper, and then draw an imaginary line to the south. You will reach the stars in Leo.
Most people identify the lion’s head and front portion as a sickle shape or backwards question mark, with the star Regulus serving as the dot below the question mark (and also signifying the lion’s heart).
Figure 3: Leo the Lion. https://earthsky.org/constellations/leo-heres-your-constellation/
Explore the Night Sky with Us
If you’d like to get out on the water at night, we offer guided Stargazing Paddles. On these trips, our guides will lead you on a peaceful nighttime paddle and help you raft up and identify the constellations as they appear.
Our Stargazing Paddle is a great introduction to the nighttime world, and the knowledge will stay with you to help you and your family enjoy the stars for years to come.