How to Find Amazing Stories Written in the Night Sky
With these stargazing tips to guide your way through the cosmos, a trip to space is closer than you think!
For as long as there have been humans living on this planet, there have been eyes gazing at the skies. Sailors and practiced guides use the stars to plot their paths, and civilizations have been interpreting their patterns as a means to tell the future, their fortunes, or even predict the weather.
But you don’t need a reason to enjoy the beauty that’s always right above us. Stargazing teaches us how to become better observers, encourages us to contemplate worlds far from our own, and connects us with legends and myths from ancient civilizations. So let’s get started!
Polaris, the North Star
The reason Polaris is so important for stargazers is because the axis of Earth is pointed almost directly at it. This means that during the course of the night, Polaris does not rise or set, but remains in very nearly the same spot above the northern horizon year-round, while the other stars circle around it.
So at any hour of the night, at any time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, you can easily find Polaris, and it is always found in a northerly direction. If you were at the North Pole, the North Star would be directly overhead.
How to find the North Star
You can use the Big Dipper to find Polaris. Notice that a line from the two outermost stars in the bowl of the Big Dipper points to Polaris. And notice that Polaris marks the tip of the handle of the Little Dipper.
Polaris is located in the constellation Ursa Minor, which contains the group of stars that make up the “Little Dipper.” Polaris is the star in the end of the Little Dipper handle. Often, however, the Little Dipper is not very bright and can be challenging to find. Polaris is easiest to find by locating the seven stars of the Big Dipper in the constellation Ursa Major, or Big Bear. These stars form a small bowl with a long handle. Follow the stars of the Big Dipper from the handle to the side of the bowl, to the bowl bottom, and up the other side; the two stars forming the second side, Dubhe and Merak, point to Polaris. Take the distance between Dubhe and Merak; Polaris is the bright star that sits about five times that distance away.
Now that you've found Polaris, you can "star jump" to other constellations
Star jumping is simply using one star to find another, or an entire constellation. For example, when you use the Big Dipper to find Polaris, you are visually “jumping” from the stars of the Big Dipper to get there.
Here's how to find more constellations in the night sky by star jumping — and the stories these constellations write in the night sky!
Orion: The Hunter
The story: Orion was a hunter of massive size and great strength. The goddess of the Earth, Gaea (or in some versions of the story, it's the goddess of hunting, Artemis, or her brother, Apollo) sent a scorpion to kill Orion, and he fled to the ocean to escape. In some stories the scorpion succeeds, but in others, Artemis is tricked into hitting Orion with an arrow. All the stories end with Zeus casting Orion's body into the heavens so his memory would live on.
How to find it: Start at the North Star, then look southwest. Orion is easily recognizable by the three bright stars that make up his belt. In fact, they seem to point directly to the North Star!
Cassiopeia: The Queen
The story: Cassiopeia was a queen who bragged that she was more beautiful than the nymphs in the sea. Her boasting angered the sea god, Poseidon, who sent a serpent to destroy her kingdom. Cassiopeia's daughter, Andromeda, was to be sacrificed to the monster to appease the gods, but Andromeda was rescued at the last moment by Perseus. As punishment for her boasting and vanity, Cassiopeia was bound to a chair, and thrown into the stars to serve as a warning for others for all eternity.
How to find it: Easiest to spot in the northern hemisphere, Cassiopeia's five bright stars appear as an M, or W. Find the North Star, and take note of which way the Big Dipper is facing; Cassiopeia will be found directly opposite the Big Dipper on the other side of the North Star.
Pegasus: The Winged Horse
The story: There are many stories about the immortal winged horse, Pegasus, who was said by the ancient Greeks to have possessed magic powers. In one story, he was tamed by the hero Bellerophon, who tried to ride Pegasus to the heavens, but tumbled from the horse, who rode on without him. In another rendition, Pegasus was Zeus's beloved war horse who was rewarded for his bravery in battle by forever living among the stars.
How to find it: One of the easiest constellations to spot, Pegasus is known for galloping through the autumn skies in the northern hemisphere. Look for four stars of equal brightness that form a box. If you start with Polaris, you can navigate your way to the W/M shape that forms Cassiopeia — Pegasus can be found right under her chair!
Ursa Major and Ursa Minor: The Great Bear and The Smaller Bear
The story: The poor maiden Callisto was turned into a bear by the jealous goddess Hera. She lived as a bear until years later, when she accidentally stumbled upon her son Arcas in the forest. Arcas, a hunter, did not recognize his mother and was about to kill her, when Zeus intervened, and called upon a storm to sweep them off to the skies.
How to find it: Once you locate the North Star, you've basically found the sky-bears! The North Star — or Polaris — is often shown as the "head" star of Ursa Minor, but is most easily recognizable as the handle of the Little Dipper. Look for the unmistakable Big Dipper nearby, which makes up about half of Ursa Major.
Draco: The Dragon
The story: Dragons appear in lore from all over the world, but the tale most closely associated with this constellation comes from Greek mythology. There was a mighty dragon named Landon, and his job was to protect one of Queen Hera’s most prized possessions: a tree that grew golden apples. The hero Hercules was tasked with performing twelve labors — including stealing apples from the mystical tree. Landon and Hercules had started to fight, when a god took pity on Hercules, and made him strong enough to defeat the great beast.
How to find it: Draco can be seen in the northern hemisphere year-round, and it's one of the easiest ones to spot for beginner stargazers. Find the north star Polaris, and locate the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper. Right between the dippers, you'll find the tail of the great dragon in the sky.
Taurus: The Bull
The story: In Greek mythology, Zeus turned into a bull to win the affection of the princess Europa. With Europa on his back, they swam across the sea to Crete, where Europa would give birth to the eventual heir to the Cretan throne, Minos.
How to find it: You'll find The Bull charging the night skies from late fall to early spring in the northern hemisphere. Use Polaris to locate the three stars in Orion's belt which point directly to a large, bright reddish-orange star called Aldebaran, also known as the Eye of the Bull!
Gemini: The Twins
The story: Gemini represents the story of Castor and Pollux. Pollux was the son of the god Zeus and therefore immortal, but Castor was the son of a mortal man, Tyndareus, the king of Sparta. When Castor died, a grieving Pollux appealed to his father to grant his brother immortality, and Zeus agreed by sending the both to the stars to be together forever.
How to find it: Use the North Star to "star jump" to the three bright stars of Orion's belt. Right below the belt is a bluish-white star called Reigel. Right above the belt is a reddish star called Betelgeuse. Now connect the stars in an imaginary straight line starting from Reigel, through Betelgeuse, and keep going till you see two bright stars that look close together. These are the "heads'' of the twins whose stars are actually called Pollux and Castor. Pollux is yellowish and brighter than Castor, which shines white.
Nights with a new moon are best for seeing the stars. Aim for a clear, cloudless night, in an area with minimal light from nearby buildings and streetlights, like a park or a beach.
When you're just starting out and beginning to find your way around the night sky, use a star chart like this one to help guide you.
Don’t rush to buy a fancy telescope. Start with what you can see with your eyes — you’ll be surprised by what you can see when you start training your eyes to look for things in space! When you can pick out some of the brighter constellations, and find a planet or two, consider graduating to a pair of binoculars for a closer look.
Find patterns in the night sky; make your own constellations and stories about them. Recognizing patterns is a great starting point when stargazing, and they don’t have to be an “official” constellation to count. Literally all the constellations were just made up by someone at some point, so go ahead and make your own!
Stargaze with friends. With more eyes on the skies, you’ll be able to help each other recognize different star patterns, locate planets, and share your own stories about constellations you made up!