Astronomy Orientation: Finding your way through the stars and celestial bodies

Let’s say you are new to star gazing and you are not sure exactly where/how to start. In this excellent article, Dana Wilde tells us to begin with orienting oneself to some major stars and/or major star constellations. Once you have learned your star gazing orientation skills  to the night sky, you will have a good base to your star gazing education.

The key to stargazing is points of orientation.

In the beginning, like for all beginnings, you take the simple points first, which in the case of stargazing is simply the brightest stars. There are two ways to use the bright stars, and like practically everything else in the universe, the two ways tend to merge: orientation by individual star and orientation by constellation. I mean, some stars are very bright and easy to spot, and some constellations are very prominent to the eye.

But anyway, once you have the Big Dipper (or Ursa Major, the Great Bear) for a point of orientation, the geography of the whole northern sky opens up. The two outer stars of the bowl make a line pointing northward at a fairly bright star — this is Polaris, the North Star. From Polaris you can trace a somewhat fainter curve of stars around to another smaller dipper — the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor, the Little Bear). And in the Big Dipper’s handle, the two end stars point roughly toward the fourth-brightest star in the sky, reddish Arcturus.

For example, in a clear field looking north at our latitudes (44.67 star-gazing-orientation-astronomydegrees north here in Troy), most people can pick out the bowl and handle of the Big Dipper without much help. Once you’ve got it, you can never miss it again. And a nice advantage to it is that in our part of the world it’s always up there; it never sets, it just whirls around and around night after night, sort of comforting in a way.

These are all, with a little patience and focus, easy to find, and you can never get lost in the northern sky again. That feels like it could come in pretty handy at some point, though I’m not sure when, exactly.

There are clear points of orientation in other parts of the sky in different seasons, too. In summer a fairly easily spotted constellation is the Northern Cross, or Cygnus, the Swan. It’s not quite as distinct as the Big Dipper because there are more visible stars in its vicinity, but once your eye lights on it, it’s in your memory for good because its five stars are in the exact proportion of a cross, or a flying swan or goose.

To the side of the swan’s head end is the fifth-brightest star we see, Vega. A couple of skips farther on the other side of the swan’s head is another bright star, Altair. On August and September nights Altair is near the southwest horizon in the constellation Aquila, the Eagle, whose four brightest stars, when your eye catches them, look like a flattened diamond.

In September and October, if you look east just after sunset you’ll see four fairly bright stars in a distinct box shape, with few other stars visible among them; this is the Square of Pegasus. If you scan to your left a little bit, your eye will enter a star field, and in it are four quite bright ones in a lopsided W — this is Cassiopeia.

In winter the most striking shape in the southern evening sky is Orion, with his three-star belt and a sword hanging vaguely off it. Two bright stars above and below are at his head, or more precisely his shoulder (reddish-colored Betelgeuse), and foot (cold, bluish Rigel). At his heel is the brightest star in the sky that’s not the sun, Sirius, the Dog Star in the shoulder of Canis Major, the Big Dog, bounding along behind the hunter.

Now these are just beginnings. These bright stars and constellations are like outposts in space from where you can navigate further out. This is not like a video game. But with patience and repetition (they’re there every clear night, year after year), you’ll see less obvious constellations start to emerge from the welter of lights, like Hercules, which is a lopsided box with four stars like appendages shooting off it, between Ursa Major and Vega. Nearby is a crownlike semicircle of stars called Corona Borealis.

Between the Square of Pegasus and Cassiopeia is Andromeda, where if you’re patient and know how to use binoculars (simple — hold them up to your eye, aim them at something and focus the image), on clear nights you can pick up a smudge of light that is actually a galaxy, M31, 2.5 million light-years away.

These stars and constellations are bright points of orientation on your maps of the stupendous elsewhere that will eventually, if you let them, burn themselves into your mind. That could come in handy sometime. I’m not exactly sure how yet.

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Star gazing orientation is great fun in and of itself.  All of a sudden, stars in the night sky start to have some meaning to you.  A whole new world will open up to you and your inquisitive mind.  So now that you have completed your star gazing orientation, you can get down to some serious star gazing.  Each new bit of star gazing knowledge will open up new worlds to you and will make your star gazing experiences more enjoyable each time you step out and look into the night skies, whether that be with your top-rated binoculars for astronomy or a telescope.