Can you navigate the night sky? It’s easier than you think. If you’ve got time on your hands and access to some outside space — even a balcony — it can take just 20 minutes each evening to master the night sky’s major sights.
After just a few short stargazing sessions, you’ll be able to point out several constellations and major stars, and you'll begin to understand their incredible stories, Earth’s journey around the sun, and your own very special place in the cosmos.
What about light pollution?
Forget about it — it’s actually an advantage for those stargazing for the first time. Yes, it’s true that light pollution is bad and getting worse, and it completely blocks out most stars for everyone living in or close to a major city. However, in hiding most of the 4,000 stars in the night sky, light pollution makes it easy to spot the bright, important stars, so it actually makes constellation-spotting a little easier. For beginners, light pollution does the most damage when it’s used as an excuse not to go stargazing, so don’t let it stop you.
Do I need a telescope?
No. Just you, your own eyes, and 20 minutes. Choose somewhere that doesn’t have any lights, like street lights or security cameras, in your field of view. Get outside around 10 p.m, when it’s just about as dark as it’s going to get, and your eyes will begin to adjust. It takes 20 minutes for your “night vision” to peak, and if you look at your phone even once, you have to wait another 20 minutes. Ready? Let’s begin.
How does the night sky work?
If you’re at home, you’ll know roughly where the sun set earlier in the evening in the west. In fact, the sun, our star, never really sets. Instead, Earth rotates from west to east, which is why the sun appears to rise in the east and set in the west. The stars follow the same path. Stars appear to rise in the east four minutes earlier each night (so two hours earlier each month) and set in the west. That’s why constellations change as the seasons turn. From your position outside, recall where the sun rises and sets; that imaginary line is called the “ecliptic,” and it’s where you’ll always find the planets because they orbit the sun in the same plane. The moon orbits Earth on more or less the same plane, so it can also be found close to the ecliptic.
Where is the Big Dipper?
If there’s one shape in the night sky almost everyone knows, it’s the Big Dipper. Its position changes throughout the year — at 10 p.m. in spring, it’s above your head if you’re in the Northern Hemisphere. A large shape of seven bright stars in the larger constellation of Ursa Major — the “Great Bear” — it consists of four stars that make up a bowl, and three that create a handle. The Big Dipper is “circumpolar” since it appears to go around the North Pole. So from the Northern Hemisphere, the only time it’s not visible is when it’s very low on the horizon.
Where is the North Star?
This is the star that the entire Northern Hemisphere night sky appears to revolve around. Find the Big Dipper’s bowl, and identify the two stars on its outer side — Merak at the bottom and Dubhe at the top. Trace a line from Merak to Dubhe, and carry on for about five times the distance between those two stars until you come to a bright star that's in an area of… not much else. That’s Polaris, which is known as the “North Star” because Earth’s axis points directly at it. Consequently, it never moves. Try finding it using the Big Dipper next time you’re outside in the dark. Wherever the Big Dipper is, this technique never fails. You can now always find north; you’re a nocturnal navigator!
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