Anyone who looks up on a clear night will see stars upon stars. It can be very overwhelming! Which ones are worth looking at? Which ones are planets? And how can you find objects like star clusters and galaxies? The best place to start your stellar-seeking quest is with the constellations. Constellations are patterns of stars in the night sky. The ancient civilizations incorporated mythologies into these star patterns, which is where their names come from.
Constellations can be used as a map of the night sky, pointing you in the right direction to find star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies that you normally can’t see as you search for them with telescopes. The beauty of constellations are that no optical aid is required, just a dark sky and an imagination! Let’s take a look at a few of the easier constellations that are out right after dark.
The Summer Triangle is easy to find overhead at nightfall here in late September and early October. The Triangle consists of 3 bright stars, each is part of a different constellation. Cygnus, the swan, is shaped like a cross. If the sky is very dark, you can see the Milky Way run right through the cross. Deneb is located at the top of the cross.
If Deneb is the top of the Triangle, Altair is the bottom left star, and is part of the constellation Aquila, the eagle. Vega, a bright blue star to the bottom right of the Triangle is part of Lyra, the harp. All 3 of these constellations contain nebulae and star clusters, both open and globular. Finding these constellations will help you find these stunning objects contained within!
Next up is Cassiopeia, the queen. Also referred to as the “W”, the shape is supposed to be the throne of the queen. Cassiopeia is in the northern part of the sky, and is out year-round, though it’s orientation in the sky varies with the seasons. At dark, it is located in the northeast. The top of Cygnus points right to Cassiopeia, and the Milky Way also runs through this constellation as well. Cassiopeia is also easy to see in a light polluted sky, and will help immensely in finding a few other constellations, and even several galaxies if you include the Milky Way!
If you look to the immediate south of Cassiopeia, you will see a large square shape. That square is Pegasus, the winged horse of legend. Pegasus is helpful in finding stellar objects as well, due to its large size and ease of seeing in light polluted skies. Early in the night this time of year, Pegasus appears as a diamond as it climbs in the sky.
If you use the bottom right point of the “W” in Cassiopeia, and the left point of the diamond of Pegasus, you can find the closest galaxy to the Milky Way, the Andromeda galaxy, also known as Messier 31 (M31). M31 is a dim, cloudy smudge visible to the naked eye on a clear dark night! The bottom of the diamond of Pegasus this year (2015) also points to the hard to see planet Uranus. Binoculars or a telescope are needed to see Uranus, which appears star-like unless viewed with magnification of 100x or more. Finding Pegasus will simplify the task of finding Uranus and M31.
Using the point of the diamond of Pegasus to the right, or facing towards the south will help you spot the dimmer, more difficult to find constellation of Aquarius, the water carrier. Aquarius is one of the signs of the zodiac, and can be found in the path of the ecliptic. The ecliptic is the plane of our solar system, and the sun, moon, and planets travel the path of the ecliptic. Your zodiac sign, therefore, is derived from when the sun is located in a constellation. The sun can be found in Aquarius in late January until mid-February.
Finding Aquarius will help you find several globular star clusters, and Neptune as well this year. Neptune can’t be seen with the naked eye, and due to its distance, it appears half the size of Uranus, so it is also more star-like in appearance. It also requires more magnification to appear like a disc. This constellation is more of a challenge to see as it is dim and susceptible to light pollution. Also, as it lies in the ecliptic, the moon will easily make this constellation nearly impossible to see, so look for Aquarius on a dark, moonless night.
Locating these constellations can be a fun challenge to the beginning star gazer! It can also be essential if using optical aid to spot deep space objects. As you gaze at these constellations, realize that astronomers for thousands of years viewed these same groupings of stars! Each civilization gave their own name to these patterns, and each civilization incorporated their myths as well. These constellations were essential to early civilizations as they foretold season-changes, planting and harvest seasons, and even changes in the weather in the days before accurate calendar keeping was widespread. So, on a nice, clear evening, take a look up and see which of these constellations you can find!
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