Star Gazers Guide to the Brightest Stars in the Night Sky

The night sky is fascinating. Unfortunately, many people, who live in cities, never see the night sky in all its glory, because of light pollution. The sheer number of stars often surprises those, who move from city to very rural areas. Stargazing is fun for children and adults, and luckily, you can usually see the brightest stars in the night sky with the naked eye. Your ability to see will of course depend on your location, the weather, whether the moon is full and the time of year and night.

You should try to get away from brightly lit areas to get the best view. If you cannot find an area away from bright lights, try putting a building or large tree between you and the bright lights.

Some of the objects that seem to be stars to us are actually planets. Stars only twinkle because of movements in the earth’s atmosphere, whereas planets appear as a steady stream of light. This is because stars generate light by internal nuclear fusion. Planets only reflect the sun’s light. The brightness of planets depends on their distance from the sun, optical size (not its true size, but how the viewer perceives it, and the angle on the Earth that the viewer is standing), their cloud cover, and the degree of reflectivity of the planet’s surface. What some people call the evening, or morning, star is actually the planet Venus. Saturn and Mars are easily mistaken for stars when their orbits take them far away from Earth and they are dim.

There are over 6,000 stars visible to the naked eye, but you will only see most of them from a very dark location far away from bright lights. However, even in a city location, there are some very bright stars. Some of the brightest stars have names, but many do not. Astronomers name some stars by the letters of the Greek alphabet, depending on brightness, followed by their Latin constellation name stars that have neither proper names nor Greco-Latin designation are have letter and number designations.

Although, because many stars were named a long time ago, sometimes the names are not intuitive, this is because things have changed over time. Rigel is the brightest star in the Orion constellation, but when astronomers named the major stars, Betelgeuse seemed brighter than Rigel, and so Rigal has the designation Beta Orionus. It may be that Betelgeuse was indeed brighter long ago, or that astronomers can now see it better because telescopes, and other viewing equipment, have greatly improved.

Those, living in the Northern Hemisphere, should be able to see Polaris the North, or Pole, Star, which has and has had several other names, with the naked eye. It is the brightest star in the Ursa Minor or little bear constellation. Sailors once used the North Star to help them to navigate and astronomers now use it to help them to find the area of the sky that they wish to study. The North Star is so useful because it remains in the same part of the sky year round, whereas other stars rise and set according to the Earth’s rotation. This is because it is above the North Pole. You can discover your latitude by calculating Polaris’s angle above the horizon, for example, Naples, Italy, Beijing, China, Philadelphia and Denver USA are all around 40 degrees latitude and Polaris’s angle above the horizon in all these cities is 40 degrees above the horizon. People star gazing in all these places and others along the same latitude will see the same stars at the same time and date. Your latitude decides what stars you can see, which is why those in the Southern Hemisphere cannot see the North Star or any of the nearby constellations.

Capella is near Polaris within the Auriga, which means charioteer, constellation. It was so named because early astronomers thought its stars resembled the point on a Roman charioteer’s helmet.

Another bright star is Sirius, in the Canis Major, literally greater dog, constellation, sometimes called the Dog Star. You can find Canis Major below Taurus and Orion to Gemini’s left in the winter sky. 

Next to Canis Major is the Canis Minor, small dog, constellation containing a very bright star, Procyon. You can see it from most of the Northern hemisphere. The Greek astronomer Ptolemy first catalogued Canis Minor, in 2AD.

Alpha Centauri meaning centaur’s foot is a very bright star. You can see it if you are south of 29 degrees latitude north at particular times of the year. In the southern Hemisphere, Alpha Centauri never sets.

You can see Acturus (sometimes called Alpha Bootis), from both hemispheres, in the Northern spring and the southern autumn, and is the brightest star in the constellation Bootes. Arcturus is close to Ursa Major and Minor from whom it takes its name, which means bear guard.

Vega is the Harp star, which northern hemisphere stargazers can see at different times from May to December. Vega is in the Lyra constellation, it is in a triangle with two other stars, Deneb and Altair.

You should be able to see the above stars with the naked eye from the Northern hemisphere at some time in the year and at some time in the evening. These are the brightest stars, which should be visible even in cities. The BBC’s Sky at Night programme has produced a useful star guide for amateur stargazers. The easily readable guide includes maps showing where and when to see the above stars and others. BBC web pages also feature various children’s astronomy related activities. There are some brilliant pages on the internet to help children and adults learn about the stars and the constellations, as well as useful hints and tips. You do not need expensive equipment to introduce children to simple astronomy. Who knows, they may find the stars more interesting than television and computer games?