Staring up at the stars on a clear night is something humans have done since the dawn of time. History has many stories and legends based on the stars and what our ancestors saw in the skies at night. If you are new to star gazing there are more than stars in the sky than can be counted. Billions of stars, each one a sun, just like ours. As you stare up at the stars you will notice that the stars in a particular area start to form little pictures, each picture is called a constellation.
People in the Northern hemisphere see different constellations than those of the Southern hemisphere and there are hundreds of constellations for you to get to know. Some constellations can be seen from your very own backyard in the city, while others require you to be in an area with no ambient light such as street lights, traffic, buildings, etc. Let’s take look at the most common constellations you can see without telescopes or binoculars in the Northern hemisphere.
The big dipper is located close to the Northern part of the sky. It is visible year round and is also known as The Plough, the Saptarishi, and the seven brightest stars of the constellation make up the larger constellation known as Ursa Major also known as the Great Bear. North American aboriginal peoples believe the stars resemble a bear with her three cubs following her.
In the Bible the Big Dipper is referred to as the seven stars (Amos 5:8). In Ireland and England the Big Dipper is known as the Plough as it can also resemble an old fashioned horse drawn plough.
Polaris (the North Star) is an important star for anyone who travels at night to know. Almost like magic, Polaris is always directly above Earth’s North Pole and never seems to move. To find Polaris draw an imaginary line from the first two stars that make up the front of the scoop. Extend the line five times the distance between these stars out through the top of the scoop and Polaris will be in line.
The Little Dipper constellation is known as Ursa Minor or smaller bear. Like Ursa Major this constellation resembles a bear although this time it is a baby bear with an unusually long tail. Stories about the Little Dipper have been around for over 13,000 years and are part of ancient Greek mythology. The seven brightest stars in this constellation resemble a ladle and the last star in the handle of the ladle is Polaris the North Star. The brightness of the four stars that make up the scoop of the dipper are second, third, fourth and fifth magnitude of brightness. This allows star gazers an easy way to remember and compare the brightness of other stars.
Orion is one of the few constellations that are visible in all parts of the world. Orion is derived from ancient Greek legends who believe the stars are the form of a gigantic hunter who was poisoned by a scorpion bite. The gigantic hunter lives on in the stars but is only visible when his killer Scorpius (another constellation) is not visible. Orion was revived from the scorpion bite by Orphiuchus the serpent bearer, and for this reason the constellation of Orphiuchus stands mid-way between them.
Orion is also represented in ancient Egyptian, Chinese, African, Middle-Eastern, Siberian, Hungarian, Scandinavian, and North American aboriginal histories. Orion is known by many different names such as Hayk, Osiris, al-jabber, and Nimrod to name a few. Almost all cultures view the star cluster as a hunter or warrior with a bow is his arm along with the very recognizable belt of three stars that he wears.
Orion is visible during the fall months through winter and into the spring in the western sky. The stars which make Orion’s belt (Alnitak, Alnilam, Mintaka, M42 and M43 stars) form an arrow which point to the North. This makes Orion a valuable navigational tool, and by extending a line from the belt Southwestwards Sirius can also be found.
Stars have fascinated people for millenniums, and will continue to fascinate us for many, many, years to come. Some of the first recorded stories of constellations go back 38,000 years. Others were mentioned in the Bible only 2000 years ago.
Next time you are out in the evening take a few moments to find these constellations and ponder where we came from, and if there is life on any other stars. If you happen to see a shooting star, don’t forget to make a wish!
Copyright 2019 Mike Wilson