Stargazing: Finding the Stars and Constellations

October 3, 2011

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!


The Old Farmer's Almanac for Kids, Volume 2

Reader Comments

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so helpful

this was very interesting and helpful. thanks! i love stargazing, and now i'll actually know what i'm looking at!

NIGHT SKY ON 1-29-2019


Chris 7233

Very good

How earth moves

To understand why the stars do not stay the same throughout the year, and variations in calendars, on YouTube search for ' How Earth Moves '.
There is an excellent video, that explains such phenonmina as 'the Big Dipper going down at sunset' and 'why Orion can not be viewed in spring'.
It is impossible to look in the same place at the same time all yar and see the same stars. The video shows you why.

Moon's location

I just recently started tracking moon's location in sky and it's rise and set time. It started with a couple nights of cloudy weather. The next clear night I was looking where I thought the moon would be and I wasn't even close! Ha-ha! Doing a little research, I think the moon sets in the west although it revolves east around the Earth, but the earth rotates east faster to give the illusion that it(the moon) is setting in the west. Correct?
Also, when will the moon be in roughly the same location the next day. ie: At 9pm the moon will be in same place 55 minutes later the next day?

moon's motion

The Editors's picture

Overall, the Moon rises in the east and sets in the west, due to Earth’s rotation. The exact location of where it rises/sets will depend on its phase, the time of year, as well as latitude. For example, in spring in the northern hemisphere, the new and full Moons will rise about east and set about in the west, but the first quarter will be more northeast/northwest, and the last quarter more southeast/southwest. The Moon is also moving east due to its own orbit, and therefore we see it has moved about 12 degrees more east than the same time the previous day. On average, the Moon rises about 50 minutes later each day, but latitude and longitude affects this, as well as time of year.

Having a dissagrement

Hello, I'm having a disagreement with a friend. He said you can't see the Big Dipper or small dipper from Cleveland Ohio .Is that true?

Big Dipper visible from Cleveland?

Your friend is wrong. The Big Dipper can be seen from Cleveland. In fact, it can be seen all night and all year long, weather permitting. It can even be seen in South America, below the equator. The North Star can be seen about ten degrees above the horizon all year long.

It true now to say again that

It true now to say again that these stars also appear in the season as it was excepted in the old time. like the appearing of the Orion does it mark the variation of season like winter, summer

Dear Almanac When I was

Dear Almanac

When I was younger, I used to gaze at the sky at dawn & it's so beautiful with sightings of trillions of stars, the Big Dipper, the Great Bear etc. Sad to find now that I could see only few stars in the sky in my region. Is it that our air is so polluted that it blocks the stars from our vision or have these stars actually disappeared or "died" out. Just wondering if the Big Dipper & the Great Bear still exist.

Ok so I'm a little confused.

Ok so I'm a little confused. In this article it says that stars don't move. So they are just stationary in the universe but everything else moves? Hmm.... I could have sworn that stars also move but I could be wrong (but I know that I'm not wrong).

Good question. What the

The Editors's picture

Good question. What the article means, though, is that what we normally notice each night and year, where stars rise and set, some stars move forward and backward relative to background celestial objects, and the constellation positions change over the months, is because the Earth is rotating on its axis and revolving around the Sun, changing our view.
However, you are right in that stars do move. For example, binary stars orbit around a common center of mass. Some stars slowly orbit around the center of their rotating galaxy; an example of this would be our own Sun, revolving around the center of the Milky Way galaxy (completing one orbit in about 225 million years).

It's the earth that's tilted

It's the earth that's tilted and moving. Crooked axis spin, and the helix movement of the earth and planets, make them appear to move

I sometimes see a star that

I sometimes see a star that looks almost red? What is it, and is it part of a constellation?

Often, what looks like a red

The Editors's picture

Often, what looks like a red star is the planet Mars. The star Antares, in the constellation Scorpius, can also appear reddish. In fact, "Antares" means "rival of Mars," probably because it can look similar to the planet.

Hello, How do I find Sirius'

How do I find Sirius' direction from my home in NW Yonkers, NY? Thank you.

To find a sky map for your

The Editors's picture

To find a sky map for your location, see:
If I'm reading the map correctly (after putting in a zip code for Yonkers), it looks like around 1 am on December 20, Sirius will be just about due South (crossing meridian), a little up from the horizon when facing south.

Hello it's 12:40 am in

Hello it's 12:40 am in Springfield, Oregon about 20 mins ago I saw orions belt but now it's not there.

What is the difference

What is the difference between Winter and Summer Constellations?

Hello Adama - As the Earth

The Editors's picture

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

finding orions belt in relation to big dipper

why on earth do all these sites not just put a simple drawing up that shows the two in relation to each other .the amount of blah blah amnazes me.

How often does Orion's belt

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

The Editors's picture

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

I live in Nigeria,

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

The Editors's picture

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:

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

Happy Sky Gazing!

Jeff DeTray

yest was new year eve i was

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

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

The Editors's picture

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

Woke up this morning 36mins.

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

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.