Tips for Learning the Constellations

The stars have fascinated man from the beginning of time.  The Babylonians, who lived 7000 to 2500 years ago in what is modern day Iraq, are believed to have been the first people to name the stars.  The Babylonians were also the first to map the heavenly bodies in the skies.  Astrology, the science of studying the effects of the planets, Moon and Sun’s effects on human behavior and the mother of astronomy, was created in Babylonia.  

The Babylonians had a significant influence on the Greeks, who named many of the constellations we can observe today. The Greeks named many of the constellations after mythological creatures and animals, which the stars appeared to resemble.  The constellations may not be called by the names that the Greeks and Babylonians gave them but they are the same stars that those ancient societies studied from Earth using very simple tools compared to sophisticated telescopes and technologies we use to study the stars today.

Studying the skies and learning constellations can be done easily and inexpensively.  A fancy telescope is not required to see the constellations.  Most constellations can be see with the naked eye or with a set of binoculars.

There are different ways to learn how to read the constellations.  There are many resources online and books that tell about the constellations. An excellent book that is written for young people and easy to follow is Field Guides: The Night Sky.  This book is published by Enchanted Lion Books. It can most likely be found in the public library, in a local bookstore or ordered online. The book tells you have to us a planisphere and binoculars to study the constellations in very simple and easy to understand language.

Another excellent book that can mostly be found in the library is NightWatch: A practical Guide to Viewing the Universe. The fourth edition of this book is published by Firefly books and written by Terence Dickinson.  It has been revised and expanded so that it can be used to study the skies through 2018.  There are several constellations pictured in the book with information about where they should be able to be seen in the sky.

The constellations can be seen easily on most clear nights but having a planisphere will make it easier to understand what is being seen.  Planispheres are easy to get at  Barnes and Noble, Amazon and places that sell science books and tools. A planisphere is a star chart that is made up of two spinning spheres that can be adjusted according to the time of day and days of the month to determine which constellations will be available to be viewed. Once the date and time has been set in the planisphere it can be compared to the sky to see which constellations are there and it will give the name of the constellation that is being viewed.  

A decent pair of binoculars are something else to be consider getting if you don’t already have a pair.  You can see approximately forty-three thousand stars and many details of the moon with a pair of binoculars.

The best way to learn the constellations is to get a good book, such as one of the two suggested above, or print off some maps of constellations from online sources.  Go outside with the sky is dark and use the printed material to help you find the constellations in the sky.