Vol.1, No.6

The major constellations

Every amateur astronomer should start by observing the easier to identify contellations.

A star map of constellations
Photo Credit: Jan Tyler
A good starting point for every amateur astronomer is to begin by learning some of the basic (easily observable) star constellations. Constellations are best observed with the naked eye, preferably in a rural or remote setting, but some are still viewable in most urban environments. The following constellations will be discussed with a bias towards the Northern Hemisphere.

The best constellation to begin with is Ursa Minor, otherwise known as the Little Dipper. Ursa Minor is important to because it incorporates Polaris, the North Star, as the third and final star on the 'handle' of the dipper. If you can find Ursa Minor and with it Polaris, you will always know which direction North is and will therefore be able to judge compass directions accordingly. This is extremely helpful for locating the harder to observe constellations, as location can be measured off of Ursa Minor. Also, you will notice the other stars of Ursa Minor rotate around Polaris as the Earth rotates throughout the night.

Ursa Major, the Great Bear, also contains the familiar dipper pattern. Ursa Major's seven brightest stars comprise what is known as the Big Dipper. The two pointer stars of the Big Dipper always point towards Polaris. In Greek mythology, Ursa Major and Minor are Callisto and her sons Arcas. They were changed into bears by a jealous Hera then flung into the heavens and immortalized by Callisto's lover and Hera's husband - Zeus, chief of the gods.

Orion the Hunter is another easily spotted constellation. Orion appears to be locked in to eternal battle with Taurus the Bull, which is just above Orion while looking south. Orion is only viewable in the winter months in the northern hemisphere. The easiest part of Orion to spot is Orion's Belt. Orion's Belt is a straight row of three stars that can usually be observed easily even from a light polluted urban environment. The stars of Orion's belt line up with other bright stars in the sky. They point down to Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky (-1.4 magnitude), in Canis Major and the belt stars also point up to Aldebaran, which is known as the reddish eye of Taurus. The area east of Orion is full of star clusters. Betelgeuse, the star at Orion's shoulder, is also home to the most famous Hitchhiker's Guide researcher in the Galaxy - Douglas Adams's Ford Prefect.

Cassiopeia the Queen is comprised of five stars and appears as a stellar W in the night sky. During the deep winter months, she appears more like a celestial M. Some amateur astronomers have had trouble identifying Cassiopeia right away. The best time to locate and identify Cassiopeia, especially for the first time, is in May, where she is skimming the horizon at due north.

Once you successfully locate the easily identifiable constellations mentioned above, you will be ready to attempt to locate and identify other well known, more difficult to observe, constellations such as Hercules, Pegasus, and Cygnus. Over the course of the next year you will also be able to find all of the constellations of the modern Zodiac. Remember, observing easier and more enjoyable with good seeing (no light pollution), which can be hard to come by in many urban environments.

Image Reference - The major constellations