Pictures in the Sky
When we first got into astronomy, one of the earliest activities was to show our children about the night sky as they expressed their excitement. Such is the fun of finding constellations. But finding the constellations and using them to navigate the sky is a discipline that goes back practically to the dawn of man. In fact, we have cave paintings to show that the more primitive people of human society could “see pictures” in the sky and describe their importance.
Constellations have been important in culture and navigation since long before our sophisticated navigation systems. Early explorers, especially by sea, relied exclusively on the night sky to help them reach their destination. In fact, when “Columbus sailed the blue seas” and “discovered the Americas” in 1492, he could not have done so without the aid of astronomy and cosmic navigation, most of which were made possible by important constellations.
When learning to find the great constellations in the sky, we used the “find one, you found them all” system. Because the easiest constellation to find will take the rest of us. That constellation is the Big Dipper. Look up at the northern sky on a clear night and widen your field of vision by focusing only on one star and it will jump out at you. It will look like a large kitchen utensil or ladle, right in the fall and upside down in the spring.
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When you have the Big Dipper under your control, you can easily find the North Star. It was this star that those ancient sailors relied on most to guide them to their landings. Start at the far end of the Big Dipper’s bowl, on the opposite side of the handle. There are two stars making up that part of the bowl.
So start at the bottom of the bowl and mentally draw a line for the star at the top of the bowl. These two stars are “pointing” as regards the north star. Just keep following that line, lean with the sky slightly and the brightest star you come across is the North Star. You can impress your friends or family if you know that the scientific name of this star is Polaris.
The North Star can at the moment take you to The Little Dipper. The thing here is that Polaris The Little Dipper has the tip of the handle and the bowl hangs down from the handle as it hangs in the kitchen. Be patient with this because the stars that make up The Little Dipper pale in comparison to The Big Dipper. Just the same once you find it it’s great.
These are obvious starting places but from The Little Dipper, you can find a constellation known as “The Swan” or Cygnus. Use the same system you used to find The North Star but continue to draw a line starting at those pointer stars in the Big Dipper’s bowl. Go about half the distance you went to find Polaris and there you are. You will see a trapezoid of stars as big as The Big Dipper. This trapezoid forms the tail of the goose.
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The line we draw from the Pointer Star is our roadmap to another famous constellation, Cassiopeia. If you use that line and imagine you’re directly under the two pointer stars, you’ll see a big “W” on the left side of the line. This constellation is Cassiopeia, the wife of the Egyptian king Cepheus in Greek mythology. There are many more wonderful constellations to discover, and a good star map can keep your search going.
Like Cassiopeia, all constellations have wonderful stories and myths associated with Greek culture. Finding star clusters is as much fun as enjoying the rich culture associated with the constellations. For all signs of the zodiac, for example, there is an associated star in the sky. So whether or not you’re serious about astrology, it’s fun to find the constellations associated with your “sign” (or your kids) and be able to see how ancestors relate to these images in the sky.
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