How to Spot your First Constellations:
A Quick Trip to the Stars
Summer stargazing is a magical journey to faraway planets, stars, and even galaxies! There are thousands of stars visible to the naked eye and dozens of constellations! Some of these constellations are visible all year round, and some are only visible in the summer. Even with today’s light pollution in urban areas, you can still have fun spotting some large, bright constellations!
Top Three Stargazing Tips
Here are a few simple tips to get started on your stargazing adventure:
- Make sure that you go stargazing on a night where the moon will not interfere. The moon can be so bright that it often will block out any of the remaining starlight in an urban area. To see stars as bright as possible, try to go on a night when the moon will not rise until after you have finished stargazing.
- Make sure that you are in a relatively dark area, such as the middle of a nearby park or in your backyard with all of the porchlights turned off. It’s important to be in an area where there is as little artificial light near you as possible, as any light source will minimize the number of stars you see.
- Be patient and wait for your eyes to adjust. When checking your phone or using a flashlight, your eyes will automatically adjust to the light that is coming from these light sources. Try waiting a few minutes without looking at any light sources and see how many stars you are able to see. After a few more minutes, see if that number increases!
Planets and the Circumpolar Constellations
Once you are in a relatively dark place, you should be able to see some of the brightest stars and planets in the sky! Throughout the month of July you should see both Jupiter and Saturn moving across the southern portion of the sky. At nightfall, Jupiter will be directly south and move towards the southwest over the course of the night. Saturn will be in the southeast and move toward the south. Planets are generally much brighter than stars, so they should be pretty easy to spot!
The north circumpolar constellations are constellations that you can spot all year round. These are a series of constellations that circle Polaris, the north star! Circumpolar means that these stars, from our point of view on Earth, circle the north pole. You can think of these constellations as hands of a clock moving around the fixed point of Polaris. Depending on your latitude on Earth, these stars will nearly always be visible. For example, on the north pole, Polaris would be directly overhead. At 40 degrees latitude (like at The Hopper), Polaris would be 40 degrees above the horizon. At the equator, Polaris would be on the northern horizon. Generally, Polaris will be the brightest star that you see in the north part of the sky. If you need a little bit of help finding it, there’s an easy trick that you can use:
To find Polaris, first look for Ursa Major. Ursa Major means Great Bear and is more commonly known in the United States as the Big Dipper. The Big Dipper is made up of seven stars. First, follow the handle of the Big Dipper until you get to the scoop. After finding the scoop, move your eyes to the far edge of the scoop. Once there, make an imaginary arrow from the bottom ladle star to the top ladle star on the edge of the constellation. Then, trace this arrow across the sky until you run into a very bright star. This star will be Polaris!
Once you have found Polaris, you have also found Ursa Minor (meaning the Lesser Bear), more commonly known as the Little Dipper. Polaris is in the far edge of the handle of the Little Dipper. By following the string of bright stars in the opposite direction of the handle of the Big Dipper, you should find the ladle of the Little Dipper!
After finding Polaris and the Big and Little Dippers, count how many other famous circumpolar constellations you can find! If you continue your imaginary arrow from the Big Dipper past Polaris, you will run into the constellation Cepheus, who was a king in Greek mythology. The constellation will appear as a triangle and a square combined to form a house. On the same side of Polaris as Cepheus, you may also be able to see Cassiopeia, named after a queen in Greek mythology. Cassiopeia looks like a squiggly line in the sky. Depending on the time of year, this squiggly line may appear to be an “M,” “W,” “E,” or “3.”
The Summer Triangle
After spotting the north circumpolar constellations, see if you can spot the Summer Triangle constellation! The Summer Triangle is made up of three bright stars: Deneb, Vega, and Altair. For most of the summer, this triangle will appear directly above you in the night sky. Make sure to broaden your viewpoint to find these three stars; the summer triangle is quite a bit bigger than the circumpolar constellations!
Inside the summer triangle, one of the easiest constellations to spot is Cygnus (the Swan). This constellation will appear as an “X” of stars across the sky, signifying the swans wingspan and length from its head to its tail. To find this, first find Deneb in the summer triangle. Deneb is the tail of the swan. Going one star further from Deneb, you will hit the Swan’s wingspan. Going to either side, you can trace the bright stars to see the wings of the swan. If you continue straight from the tail, you are working towards the swan’s head!
Be a Citizen Scientist!
Once you’ve finished stargazing, engage your inner scientist and help collect data for the Globe at Night initiative. By downloading the Dark Sky Meter application on your phone, you can take pictures of the light levels where you chose to stargaze and submit them to a worldwide compendium of observations. By submitting this measurement, you can help to compile a map of how bright or dark the night sky is in your area! To check out the thousands of other readings that have been taken across the world, go to www.darkskymeter.com.
If you need a little help spotting any constellations, try downloading a stargazing app onto your phone. These apps will show you a live projection of the stars in the sky, and will even identify various stars, constellations, and planets for you! If you enjoy searching for constellations, try looking up some other constellations that you can spot in the night sky. A useful tool to see how constellations appear and move in the sky is the application “Stellarium.” You can download Stellarium for free online and it will show you exactly what constellations are in the night sky from your exact location!