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 of these star patterns were identified. The patterns helped people navigate on land and by sea and 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. 

Finding The Big Dipper

The Big Dipper. Credit: NASA/Jerry Lodriguss

The Big Dipper is actually not a constellation, but an asterism (a familiar group of stars located within a constellation).

Look for seven major stars: four in the “bowl” and three in the “handle.” The two stars outside 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. Credit: NASA/Akira Fujii

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.  

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.

The Little Dipper. Credit: Rogelio Bernal Andreo/NASA

Ursa Minor, the Little Bear

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

Constellation Orion. Credit: NASA

Orion, the Hunter

This is easiest to find in the winter. Look for three bright stars in a line—they represent Orion’s belt. 

The two stars north of this are Orion’s shoulders. One of these 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: The grapes were ready to harvest if it appeared at midnight. If it appeared in the morning, summer was beginning. If it appeared in the evening, winter had arrived.

Read more about finding Orion.

Sirius and Rigel. Credit:  Vojtěch Bauer/NASA

Canis Major, the Great Dog

This constellation 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 reach a very bright star—Sirius, the dog’s nose.
  • Look farther south to find a triangle of stars that marks the dog’s hindquarters.

Ancient Egyptians called Sirius “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.

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 connecting the stars!

About The Author

Catherine Boeckmann

Catherine Boeckmann loves nature, stargazing, and gardening so it’s not surprising that she and The Old Farmer’s Almanac found each other. She leads digital content for the Almanac website, and is also a certified master gardener in the state of Indiana. Read More from Catherine Boeckmann

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