Watching The Stars: A Practical Guide On Becoming a Stargazer

I have posted a while ago how to become educated even if you have finished school (and have fun in the process). This time I want to talk about something yet unrelated to languages, yet very cool: star gazing. It is something I have done only for the last few nights yet but I have thoroughly enjoyed and I want you to try it: watching at the night sky and identifying the constellations. Here’s what it’s all about.

Ever since I can remember, I was interested in recognizing the patterns in the sky and seeing the constellations. However, it seemed like an impossible task to me: there are so many stars and they look so confusing that neither me, nor anybody I knew, could find their way through. They, and I, know the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper and that’s about it. Or even they didn’t. If they could find Polaris (i.e. the North Star) in the Little Dipper then that would be good. So, I wanted to know more but I never took the time to learn more.

Yesterday I was browsing iPod apps and I saw one called “Pocket Universe”. I got it for myself and went out to try gaze at the stars that night. I didn’t know what to do at first but I managed to locate the Big Dipper at first and point the view on my screen to the same place and to go form there. It took me about 10 minutes to identify any other constellation (Draco was really hard) but I finally would and I managed to to locate good five or six of them, including Draco, Lyra, Hercules, Cepheus and some more. The great part was that after having identified them I would be able to trace them back from my memory and thus recognize them just by seeing them without any external help.

When I got the first ones, this was an awesome feeling. The Greeks also saw the same stars a couple of thousands of years ago and here I am, looking at them after this time and seeing the same patterns they saw. This is also a reference to the stars because if I know the constellation where a star is located, I can identify and look the star up to find out what kind of “oxygen” it’s made of. As the new saying goes:

Twinkle Twinkle little star,
I don't wonder what you are;
For by spectroscopic ken,
I know that you're hydrogen.
(Lewis Fry Richardson)

I want you to try this. You don’t need to buy an iPod for this purpose, nor do you need any apps. Just get a sky map and go star hunting in the evening. Here are the tips I can give you so far:

Getting your sky map

You will need some reference to recognize the stars. You will also need it to be set up according to the current time of the year and your current location so that it is does show the constellations that you can indeed see and not some other stars. Because it is impractical to get a computer outside, you might want to get some reference for where the stars are and print it out. If you are American, you might try this sky map out and in case you are from somewhere else, well then, try this version of the sky map.

You might want to print out your map and go seeing the stars or to upload it on your phone or something and then go use it. Of course, it would be easier for you to navigate if you could get similar software like I did because then you can use a similar to Google Maps interface to navigate. I guess there should be a lot of applications for a lot of devices. You could also use Google Sky if you have the capacity but its functions go way beyond simple star gazing. And it is kind of harder to identify the constellations with it.

Go out during the evening!

Go out when it’s dark. The stars have to be visible as well. The tip here is pretty self-obvious: try to avoid light. You know how when people got photos from the moon you could not see the stars in the sky like this:

Man on the moon. The sky is not visible.

Some people stated this was evidence that the whole mission was a hoax but an alternative explanation is that you cannot see the stars when the surface is well lit. Try it: the more lighting there is, the less stars you can see and it is enough for you to get out from where the light is and what was black sky, you can see lights instead. That’s why you should find a dark place for efficient stargazing.

Start with the Big Dipper!

If you have the map and don’t know where to start, start with the Big Dipper (if you are in the Northern Hemisphere anyway). Look above you head and you should identify it. It looks like this:

The Big Dipper

Then you can move on onto Draco and Ursa Minor like I did: those constellations are near and you can always trace it back to the Big Dipper. You can just do your tracing like that and see and remember the constellations one by one. Of course, learning the constellations will (hopefully) be your first step.

Do not get discouraged!

It is hard to but in case you do, remember that it takes time at first. It is a bit hard to identify the constellations when you do not know them at first and it might become a bit frustrating. However, as it usually is, persistance pays. Keep at it and try to identify the stars and you will eventually succeed. If something is wrong, consider changing your star map to something else. You can find a lot of those on Google.

It takes time at first but it is an incredible feeling. The stars are so universally human yet most humans do not take the time to even look at them systematically. Perhaps this is due to lack of information, though… I suggest you get the necessary information and try. The sky is lots of interesting and free experience and literally the sky is the limit.

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10 comments

  1. I'm an stargazer myself, though I'm more interested in those little wanderers in disguise than in recognizing the constellations. Most people look at Saturn or Mars shining in the night sky and take them for your regular stars.

    Now here's something way better than those plain sky maps: Stellarium is a software that simulates the night sky from any spot on Earth, at any time. Invaluable app for us armchair astronomers!

  2. Great software. You're probably on the next level than me. Well, hopefully, I'll move there sometime. :P

  3. very interesting!! Very few people look up! i love my time with the kids!!

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