Tips for Learning the Constellations

The constellations are human designed patterns in the sky which link various stars. Most of the names used for today’s constellations date from classical Greek and Roman times and therefore include many mythological and classical figures. All of the constellations have stories attached to them and many people find that learning some of these legends helps with memorising the constellations.

Constellations very rarely resemble the actual birds, animals, objects or figures they are supposed to represent, with a few exceptions, but they are a very useful tool for helping us navigate around the night sky. Once you know even one or two constellations, locating other objects of interest, such as galaxies, star clusters, nebulae and the emanation point of meteor showers becomes far easier.

– Get a star chart –

Not all constellations are visible in the night sky at all times but are dependant on the season of the year, your physical location and the time of night. Star charts, which are easily obtainable on the Internet for printing out, will show you which of the constellations you will be able to observe. You can also buy a planisphere which is a type of perpetual star chart and can be adjusted for any time of night or any date of the year.

Astronomy magazines also have month by month star charts which include moon phases and visible planets present in the sky.

– Using the ‘Big Dipper’ as a pointer –

The Big Dipper, also called the Plough or the Saucepan, isn’t actually a constellation but what is known as an asterism – any  recognisable star pattern other than a constellation. The Big Dipper, part of the constellation Ursa Major or the Big Bear, is an excellent starting point because most people recognise it. Furthermore, the stars which make up the Big Dipper are circumpolar stars which means they rotate in close proximity to the celestial pole and don’t disappear below the horizon.

From the Big Dipper you can trace out all of Ursa Major, Ursa Minor (Little Bear), the constellations of Cassiopeia and Pegasus and can easily locate Polaris (North or Pole star) and the Andromeda galaxy.

-Winter constellation spotting –

 One of the easiest places to start in winter (in the northern hemisphere) is Orion. Most people are familiar with this constellation, even if only a part of it such as the three bright stars which form Orion’s belt. Once you have located this then you can easily trace out the whole of Orion with a little help from a star chart. Orion is one of the constellations which requires a little less imagination to trace out the figure it represents, in this case a hunter with his bow.

Once you have traced out Orion there are many nearby constellations which form a complete story to make remembering them easy. Orion, the hunter, has both of his dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor at his heels and to the left of him. Both Canis Major and Canis Minor have particularly bright stars in their constellations which will help to guide you. As an additional tip, if you follow the line of Orion’s belt to the left it will arrive at Sirius, the exceptionally bright star of the constellation Canis Major.

Taurus, the bull, is quite easy to find once you are familiar with Orion. Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus, which appears to have a reddish tinge, is the eye of the bull. To locate Aldebaran follow the line of Orion’s belt but this time upwards and to the right of Orion. Tracing out the rest of Taurus is quite easy after this as part of Taurus, known as the Hyades, forms a very distinctive triangle – the head of the bull.

If you continue the line from Orion’s belt, through Aldebaran you will arrive at a beautiful little cluster known as the Pleiades or the Seven Sisters. Legend has it that Taurus is guarding the beautiful Seven Sisters from the amorous advances of Orion.

– Summer constellation spotting –

Constellation spotting in summer (northern hemisphere) also has a very easy starting point from which many constellations can be found. Stand facing south and look up and three bright stars which practically dominate the sky form a large isosceles  triangle known as the summer triangle. Each bright star is from a separate constellation – Cygnus (the swan), Aquila (the eagle) and Lyra (the lyre). The triangle will form a pattern halfway between the horizon and directly overhead. Once you have traced Cygnus it is actually quite easy to imagine the graceful form of a swan in flight, wings outstretched.

– Tracing out the signs of the zodiac –

Which signs of the zodiac are visible will depend on the time of year, your location and the time of night. This is where it is helpful to have a star chart to guide you.

Finding the signs of the zodiac is relatively easy as they follow a curved line in the sky known as the ecliptic. This is actually the path that the sun takes through the sky. Once you have located one zodiacal sign and traced it out then the rest will follow.

One word of warning – if you are a Cancerian and hoping to see your constellation this may prove very difficult with the naked eye. Cancer is exceptionally faint, having no bright stars to mark it and even in locations where light pollution is absent it is tricky to pinpoint.

When you are first starting out don’t try and trace out too many constellations at once. Pick a section of sky and become familiar with the constellations there before moving onto another section. Test yourself by naming and tracing out without the help of a star chart as you gain in confidence.

Wherever possible get away from light pollution for the best stargazing and pick nights when the moon is not visible (new moon) or when it has passed its full phase and is waning (third quarter).

You will probably be surprised at how quickly you will learn the constellations after the tricky first few. It is an exciting feeling to look up on starry nights and suddenly discover you can name what you see and your new found knowledge will no doubt add to your enjoyment of the night sky.