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Stargazing: Finding the Stars and Constellations

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Thousands of years ago, people spent hours gazing at the night sky. They found that by connecting the stars as if they were dots, patterns emerged that resembled animals, people and things.

Today, we call star patterns constellations. Eventually, 88 star patterns were identified. The patterns helped people navigate on land and by sea as well as tell time, appearing in different parts of the sky depending on the day and year. (The stars don't move. Earth moves, rotating on its axis once every 24 hours and revolving around the Sun once every year.)

Do you enjoy stargazing? Here's help finding the different stars and constellations. (You can also reference star maps on our astronomy links page.)

The Big Dipper

The Big DipperThe big dipper is not a constellation, but an asterism (a familiar group of stars located within a constellation). See image to the left (photo credit: NASA/Jerry Lodriguss).

Look for seven major stars: four in the "bowl" and three in the "handle." The two stars on the outside of the bowl are called the "pointer" stars. They point to Polaris, a bright star that is also called the North Star because with it you can figure out which way is north.

To find north:

  • Find the Big Dipper.
  • Find the pointer stars.
  • Find Polaris.
  • Look straight up.
  • Turn your body towards Polaris.
  • Now, you're facing north.

Ursa Major, the Great Bear

If you find the Big Dipper, you have found the Great Bear: The Dipper's handle is the Bear's tail.  See the image to the right (credit: NASA/Akira Fujii).Ursa Major and Ursa Minor

Legends about the Great Bear abound. Ancient Greeks and Romans believed that a mythological king grabbed its tail, swung it around, and swung it into the sky to whirl around the North Pole forever. Some Native Americans believed that the three tail stars were hunters chasing the Bear.

Ursa Minor, the Little Bear

Polaris will help you find the Little Dipper, also known as Ursa Minor, or the Little Bear. Polar is the star on the end of the Little Dipper's handle.

Orion, the Hunter

This is easiest to find in the winter.  Look for three bright stars in a line—these are Orion's belt. See image to the left (credit: NASA).

The two stars north of this are Orion's shoulders. One of Orionthese is Betelgeuse ("BEETLE-juice"), which is a giant red star. The two brighter stars to the south are his legs.

Ancient people used Orion to predict the seasons: If it appeared at midnight, the grapes were ready to harvest. If it appeared in the morning, summer was beginning. If it appeared in the evening, winter had arrived.
 

Canis Major, the Great Dog

This is named for the larger of Orion's two hunting dogs (the other, Canis Minor, has only two stars).

To find Canis Major:

  • Imagine a straight line through Orion's belt. 
  • Move your eyes left (south) until you come to a very bright star—that's Sirius, the nose of the dog.
  • Look farther south to find a triangle of stars that marks the dog's hindquarters.

Ancient Egyptians called Sirus "the Nile Star" because it always appeared in the sky right before summer began and the waters of the River Nile began to flood. In medieval Europe, people thought that a combination of light from the Sun and Sirius caused the hot and humid "dog days" of summer.

Sirius and Rigel

Credit: NASA

On a clear and moonless night away from bright lights, you can see about 2,500 stars. Spend some time looking at the sky and connect the stars!

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Comments

What is the difference

By Adama Cayenne

What is the difference between Winter and Summer Constellations?

Hello Adama - As the Earth

By Jeff DeTray

Hello Adama -

As the Earth revolves around the Sun during the year, different constellations are visible in the night sky during each season of the year.

A good example is Orion, which is high in the night sky during the winter in the northern hemisphere. During the summer, Orion is still in the sky, but only in the daytime, so we don't see Orion in the summer.

On the other hand, Cygnus and Lyra are examples of prominent constellations visible in the northern hemisphere summer. They are high in the sky during the night all summer.

With each season, different constellations are visible. This pattern repeats year after year, century after century, millennium after millennium.

Jeff DeTray
http://www.AstronomyBoy.com

How often does Orion's belt

By Ron Barbarino

How often does Orion's belt appear in almost
the exact middle of the Big Dipper ?
I have never noticed this before, where both constellations are very bright, in the Great Lakes region,specifically, Cleveland,Ohio.
Ron B.

Hi Ron, Orion's Belt is never

By Jeff DeTray

Hi Ron,

Orion's Belt is never anywhere near the Big Dipper!

At this time of year, Orion is due south in the early evening. On the other hand, the Big Dipper is always in the northern sky. If you are viewing Orion, you would have to turn around backwards to see the Big Dipper.

The positions of all constellations are fixed with respect to one another. Orion and the Big Dipper are always separated by a vast expanse of sky and always remain the same distance apart.

Jeff DeTray
http://www.AstronomyBoy.com

I live in Nigeria,

By Laurence Oko

I live in Nigeria, Africa...
The great constellation Orion was very easily
Spotted almost overhead in the early evening
Sky(about 8pm local time), with Carnis Major †̥o its South, both in
Their apparent Westerly movement; that's a few months back.
But now Orion is farther West about that same time. †̥o me it the easiest †̥o spot among others: not been able †̥o get my way around the big dipper with the naked eyes anyway. Orion and Carnis are really awesome †̥o behold. But when and where do I look from my vantage †̥o spot the Big Dipper?

Hello Laurence - The Big

By Jeff DeTray

Hello Laurence -

The Big Dipper is visible from your location in Nigeria. Look northward at about 9:00 p.m. to see the Big Dipper upside down.

I've made a Sky Map that shows the location. To view the map, copy and paste the following location into your web browser:

http://www.astronomyboy.com/constellations/Big_Dipper_Nigeria.gif

The Sky Map was made for Lagos, but any location in Nigeria will have a similar view.

Happy Sky Gazing!

Jeff DeTray
http://www.AstronomyBoy.com

yest was new year eve i was

By cutie

yest was new year eve i was at the center of my porch right above me was a group of stars like big dipper i dont know how to find polaris ........
i dont think that was big dipper.......

um yeah. back when i was 16

By eddy mercer

um yeah. back when i was 16 in wisconsin i saw the big dipper. anyway on the rise of the handle part there was a twin star [bianary] many years later same constellation but no extra star

Hi Eddy, You are referring to

By Jeff DeTray

Hi Eddy,

You are referring to Mizar and Alcor, the double star asterism at the bend in the Big Dipper's handle. Since ancient times, the ability to see both stars has been a test of visual acuity.

Rest assured that both stars are still there. It may be that your vision is not as acute as it was when you were 16. Or maybe the sky conditions aren't as favorable as they were back then. I, too, see only one star when I look at that location.

In any case both stars are still there, and those with good vision can still see both of them when conditions are good.

Jeff DeTray
http://www.AstronomyBoy.com

Woke up this morning 36mins.

By Anthony Alan

Woke up this morning 36mins. ago 6am. 12/07/13 notice the Big Dipper right about me threw the sun roof in my room. Upside down.

I just saw Orion.. Its 1:45am

By Rebecca Tucker

I just saw Orion.. Its 1:45am est. I live in north Carolina and it is a clear beautiful fall night. In addition to Orion I was also able to see most of Monoceros as well as Canis major. I was so excited to view and
recognize them so easily.

was it beautiful????

By cutie

was it beautiful????

Yes it was you must find in a

By Rasheka

Yes it was you must find in a bunch of stars you should use a star map or download the app

i really love astronomy but i

By meghan dawson

i really love astronomy but i feel i cant be one because of my math grades

Some of the best discoveries

By Louis Cuchiara

Some of the best discoveries were made by amateur astronomers. Math can be learned, but even without knowing the math, learn the sky and follow what you love. For more like minded stuff come check out my science community at https://www.facebook.com/IRDSciencecommunity

So Orion dips down towards

By Ellin Callvis

So Orion dips down towards the southern horizon in Summer, which is why I only see it in winter here were hills obscure my view to the south and west? {from western Canada]

Orion is generally viewed as

By Almanac Staff

Orion is generally viewed as a winter constellation because it is behind the Sun during the summer--as seen from our earthly vantage point. This constellation actually returns to the predawn sky happens in late summer each year. You'll see it just before sunrise.

I am perplexed because I live

By Carl H.

I am perplexed because I live in TN USA and all through the spring and summer this year I have seen Ursa MAjor until recently (August) I cannot seem to find him even though I know where to look. What gives.

Yes! I just saw Orion on the

By Michael Caligiuri

Yes! I just saw Orion on the morning of August 5 on the horizon just before dawn.

i need to know the

By Alexis canas

i need to know the constellation of the capricorn sign

Sorry, this page is about

By Almanac Staff

Sorry, this page is about astronomical constellations, not astrological signs. Capricornus is an astronomical constellation.

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