Know Your Stars (And Planets)

Marcia and I have a hot tub in our backyard, and we end most days (weather permitting) by sitting out in it together. On clear nights, we always make a point of noting and admiring the objects in the sky above us, both the ephemeral, atmospheric ones that cross our field of vision quickly (fireflies, airplanes, satellites, the International Space Station, shooting stars) and the abiding, celestial ones, whose motion is apparent only through sitting outside, night after night, on a year-round basis.

Our enjoyment of this evening ritual is always enhanced by knowing what we’re seeing. And different seasons have different looks. Right now, we’re observing the Summer Triangle of stars (Deneb, Vega and Altair) disappearing below our tree-line to the west, while Jupiter is bright to the south of us, the constellations Pegasus (a big square) and Cassiopeia (a big “W”) dominate the view directly over our heads, and Perseus and the Pleiades creep up from the east. (Our house blocks most of our eastward view, so we don’t see things until they’re about 75 degrees above the horizon in that direction).

We’ve got a fair amount of light pollution in our neighborhood, so we don’t see a ton of celestial detail. The dusty heart of the Milky Way (our home galaxy) is only faintly visible to us on rare, moonlight free, cold, crisp evenings, for instance, and we can only clearly see the Pleiades’ constituent stars if we take the binoculars out with us. But the brighter objects in the sky certainly give us plenty to admire, point out and discuss, much as human beings have done throughout recorded and pre-historic times. I can think of few things, in fact, that bind us as tightly to our forebears as looking up in wonder at the sky.

Unfortunately, I think this is a dying habit in our culture. When I’m outside at night with other people, I will often point out and name some fairly obvious object in the sky, and 99% of the time, their reaction will be something along the lines of “Really? I didn’t know that. How do you know that? And what’s that over there? Huh!”

It’s a great conversation starter, and if I were a younger, single dude, I would probably still be using this knowledge for evil, not good. “Come . . . let us step away from the light of the camp-fire, you and I, the better to admire the wonder that is Arcturus.” This is powerful, primal wisdom. Strong Juju.

So it occurs to me that I should impart such wisdom upon the young folk who might use it more fully today. Toward that end, I offer, below, an even dozen of the easiest-to-find, easiest-to-remember objects in the sky. Pretty much any time throughout the year, you should be able to spot at least a few of them, point, and bedazzle the object of your desire.

Note: I’m operating under the assumption that you already know what the Sun and the Moon look like, so I’m not including those objects on the list below. Also, note that this guide only applies to those with a view of the Northern Sky, so the tips offered here will generally work in most of the continental United States, at least, plus locations of similar Northerly latitudes elsewhere. If you live in New Zealand or Argentina, though, you’re going to need to find another mentor to help you with The Southern Cross, Alpha Centauri and the like.

The Big Four Planets:
1. Venus
2. Jupiter
3. Mars
4. Saturn

Not “Big Four” in terms of their size, necessarily, but in terms of their brightness in the night sky. (Neptune and Uranus are much larger than Mars and Venus, but they’re also much, much further away, and you won’t be pointing them out to anybody). At their fullest magnitude, Venus, Jupiter and Mars are brighter than any of the stars in the night sky, and Saturn is brighter than all but a couple of them.

The planets move on a night-to-night basis faster through the sky than the stars behind them do. (The word “planet” is derived from the Greek word for “wanderer,” in fact). So how do you keep straight which planet is where? I recommend using Sky and Telescope‘s Interactive Star Chart, which can be found here. Put in your location and time and, hey presto, you get a sky map that shows you what’s what and where. (Keep in mind when you look at a sky map that east is to the left, and west is to the right, the opposite of traditional maps, because you are looking up at the sky, not down at the ground).

As I write, Jupiter is stunning in the Southern sky in the 10 PM to midnight slot, when we’re usually outside. If you go out yourself, turn and look South, and that big bright object half-way between the horizon and the local zenith (the spot directly above your head) is Jupiter. If you have a good set of high-powered binoculars and steady hands, you can even see up to four of its moons. Wow!

It’ll be awhile before the other Big Four planets are visible from here at that time of night (though Saturn and then Venus will be rising in the morning to the east soon), but if you just consult the link above periodically, you’ll easily be able to keep track of which wanderer is where. They’re hard to miss.

The Big Three Constellations:
5. Orion
6. Ursa Major
(The Big Dipper)
7. The Summer Triangle
(not a constellation in the classical sense, though it’s a very visible, findable, notable presence in our Northern sky)

These three groupings of stars are large, bright, and easily spotted, and at least one of them will be visible every night, throughout the year. In the 10 PM to midnight slot, when we normally stargaze, Orion will be most prominent from about now until March, Ursa Major from about January to September, and the Summer Triangle from about May to November. You can use the Sky and Telescope site above if it helps with first identification, but once you’ve seen each of these, they’re pretty easy to find again. It’s also great to know the name of at least one star in each constellation. That shows that you’ve got depth.

Orion (The Hunter) is most easily recognized by the distinctive straight line of three bright stars that make up his belt. Even in highly light-polluted skies, you should be able to see at least the belt, plus two stars in his shoulders, and two stars in his feet. The two brightest stars in the constellation are Betelgeuse (top left shoulder) and Rigel (bottom right foot). Orion moves East to West across the sky, when looking in a Southerly direction.

Ursa Major (The Great Bear) is usually called the Big Dipper, and that’s what it looks like. It’s much brighter than the Little Dipper, which rotates about Polaris, the North Star. (More on that later). The “knuckle” in the handle of the Big Dipper is called Mizar; it’s not the brightest star (that would be Alioth, one star up on the handle), but it’s the easiest to identify. Ursa Major moves East to West across the sky, when looking in a Northerly direction.

The Summer Triangle actually includes the brightest stars from three separate constellations: Vega (in the constellation Lyra), Deneb (in the constellation Cygnus), and Altair (in the constellation Aquila). In modern night skies, especially in urban or suburban areas, you don’t see much of Lyra and Aquila, hence the reorganization of their prime stars into the more easily spotted Summer Triangle. You can still see most of Cygnus (The Swan), though, and Deneb serves as its head, with its wings inside the Triangle. Altair is the star closest to the horizon, and Vega is the other corner. The Triangle moves East to West across the sky, when looking almost directly overhead.

One note on the images: keep in mind when you look for these constellations, they may not be oriented in the same way the photos are. Orion, for instance, at 10 PM right now looks like he’s laying flat on his face to the East, so the belt doesn’t run side to side from our perspective right now, it runs up and down.

Four Other Important Star Combinations
8. Sirius
and Aldebaran
9. Castor and Pollux
10. Arcturus and Spica
11. Polaris and Capella

Once you’ve learned Orion and Ursa Major, you can use them to help you find other prominent stars in the sky. It may actually help you to be looking at a star chart when you read these tips, to help visualize the relationships better.

Let’s go back to Orion’s belt. If you follow the line of his belt downward, toward the horizon, the next really bright star that you will see is Sirius, which happens to be the brightest star in the night sky, from our perspective. Now, go back to the belt and follow it upward, toward the zenith; the next really bright star that you will see is Aldebaran.

Now, let’s look at Orion from another dimension: draw a line between the two brightest stars (Rigel in his foot and Betelgeuse in his shoulder), and follow that line toward the zenith. You will see a bright pair of nearly identical stars along this line: Castor and Pollux, The Twins, in the constellation Gemini.

If  Ursa Major is the dominant constellation in the sky, then you need to remember this phrase: “Arc to Arcturus, then onward to Spica.” If you follow the curve of the Big Dipper’s handle away from the skillet bottom part, and imagine that curve continuing across the sky, the next bright star you find will be Arcturus, the second brightest visible star this far north. Continue that arc further, and you will arrive at Spica. The distance from the last star of the Dipper’s handle to Spica is about half the distance between the horizon and the zenith.

Going back to the Big Dipper again, if you follow the line of the front face of the skillet (the two stars further away from the handle) toward the North (away from the skillet bottom), the next somewhat bright star you will find is Polaris, the North Star. It never moves, from our perspective. Everything in the night sky rotates around it. If things are relatively clear, you will be able to see that Polaris is at the end of the handle of Ursa Minor, the Little Dipper.

And, again, one more time back to the Big Dipper: follow the line of the bottom of the skillet, away from the handle, and the next bright star you find is Capella, another of the ten brightest stars visible in the Northern Hemisphere.

One Cluster of Stars and Dust:
12. The Pleiades

The Pleiades are a closely-packed cluster of stars and dust that look like a smudged spot in the sky when there’s light pollution about, though in clear, dark skies, you can optically resolve the brightest stars in the cluster. They’re often harder to spot in typical suburban or urban settings, but well worth finding. If you follow the line of Orion’s belt toward Aldebaran, per the tips in the section above, and keep going, you will come to The Pleiades. Since your peripheral vision is better than your direct vision, it’s sometimes easiest to spot them first out of the corner of your eye, rather than by direct sighting. It’s also great to look at The Pleiades through binoculars, so you can really see “The Seven Sisters” clearly. Trivia: In Japan, The Pleaides are known as Subaru, and the logo of the car company of that name is a stylized representation of this star cluster.

So there you go. With that small, rudimentary understanding of the lights in the sky above us, you should be able to make interesting conversation in any outdoors, late night setting, weather permitting. You’ll also come to appreciate the associations between what’s in the sky and what’s happening seasonally. I always get wistful when I see Orion in the sky for the first time each year, for example, since it means that we’re past harvest time, and winter will soon be upon us.

Be sure to make a point like that while pointing out Rigel and Betelgeuse to your new friend. Sensitivity supplements knowledge nicely.

103 thoughts on “Know Your Stars (And Planets)

  1. Or, whip out your iPhone, iPad, or other compatible device and launch StarWalk. Then point said mobile device into the sky and it’ll tell you what you’re looking at, including all the stars, constellations, planets, etc. You can even fast forward or rewind to see what the sky will look like on different days. Curious where a specific star is located? Just search for it and StarWalk will point you in the right direction.

    Whoops! That’s awfully commercial for Indie Albany.

    • Well, yes, Ryan, I suppose we COULD do it that way . . . but we’re trying to teach the young people to be cool here, not dorky . . .

      Besides, the light of the iToy screen would mess up your night vision, so you’d know where Aldebaran was, but you’d lose your ability to see it.

      (Stupid technology ruins ALL the fun . . . grumble grumble grumble . . . )

      • Well said, Eric, and a nice post. Although with all the fossil fuel being burned to keep all those iPhones charged up, someday the only way we’ll see the stars might be with StarWalk!

  2. Love this, JES! When the Crown Prince was born, I bought a 3.5-in Newtonian on super sale from Eagle Optics. Unfortunately, we have two street lights on either side of the house and tall trees on three sides…not great for astronomy…but we have been able to see Saturn’s rings and the CP loves the moon. And I’ve taught him all about how to find the North Star.

    Also, one of my fave lines from the great Cusack vehicle, The Sure Thing: “He thinks he’s so smart, but he doesn’t even know Cassiopeia is the mother of Andromeda!”

  3. I have always used my star knowledge for good and not evil. If by good you mean pointing out things that guys can’t identify and telling them what they are looking at. It’s kind of like out-driving them on the golf course don’t you think.

    • Bring it on, baby. I’ve forgotten more about astronomy than most people have ever learned. 😀

      Seriously, because I dealt with the data a lot I became much more familiar with the three-dimensional arrays of the nearest stars (even to recognizing intuitively when said arrays were used in the STAR TREK films, and then confirming the fact later) than with the whole panoply of constellations. And these days I deal more with calendar astronomy than with naked-eye observational astronomy, mostly because it’s so hard to get a decent view in the Houston, TX. area.

      But go ahead, take me out somewhere and show off your knowledge. My lust for knowledge overwhelms my ego, every time. In such a game there is no score – not for me.

  4. You’re right. Any time I’ve had occasion to point out a planet, bright star or constellation to someone, they’ve reacted as though it was very clever of me to know that. My real feelings were dismay that anyone WOULDN’T recognize those obvious celestial benchmarks. It’s nice to know that there are still people who look up at night and can name things. I say this despite now living in an area where second-magnitude stars are usually washed out, and there isn’t that much to see on even the very clearest nights.

  5. This is a great article! I’m moving to the Arctic in a few weeks. Looking forward to getting my first glimpse of the auroras…and having clear nights to see a multitude of stars. I hope to relearn some of the constellations that I’ve forgotten…

  6. I am a constant stargazer. I just did a unit on stars and the phases of the moon with my preschool class. This will be a great reference to go back to, thanks for posting. I wish I could see the stars more often, even on clear nights, I live in an old neighborhood with big trees that block out big swaths of the night sky.

    Great post.

    • I think it’s cool to go out the first time with an article like this one, or a star map, or whatever, and look up the first time and start to put the pieces together, making the leap from the abstract to the real.

  7. Thanks for posting this. I often get frustrated that people don’t know the night sky. I think I take it for granted that I have been able to name constellations and point out planets since I was little. The skill has never left me and neither has the joy that comes from watching the stars .
    Nice post x

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  9. Hey! This is a very good blog entry, loving the science. But, from a cosmological perspective Pleiades is not a deep space object. It is within the Milky Way galaxy, deep space objects are typically quasars and galaxies outside the local group. It’s probably best to call them an open cluster within the Milky Way.

    We must note, any stars that you see in the night sky (if you can actually tell them apart from galaxies with your naked eye!) that they are within the Milky Way galaxy. The Milky Way is massive, but not as ENORMOUS as the Universe!

    Thank you very much for the article!

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  11. Excellent blog! I agree, it would be better if more people knew the constellations – although I do quite like being able to point them out to others and sound rather clever! 😉 Having said that, they never seem to be fired up with the same enthusiasm that I was when someone first showed me the basic constellations two years ago. Have decided to ask for a telescope for Christmas so that I can do more observing – it’s staggering how beautiful the night-sky can be 🙂

  12. Nice post. I’m reminded of my young days…cross country navigation…night patrol… all the stars were my stars…just a look at the sky told time and direction.

    my favorites are the dippers, the north star and the southern cross.

    • We traveled to Argentina a few years ago, and I was tickled pink to be able to see Alpha Centauri, Canopus, and the Southern Cross . . . I felt like I was missing out on something, having never seen out closest stellar neighbor with my own two eyes!!!

  13. It’s always a joy to look at the night sky when I’m up north, away from city lights. I don’t know what children are taught now, but the kids I’ve met can’t locate any constellations, not even the Big Dipper. When I was in grade school, we had to learn some basic star maps. I’m familiar with the constellations you named because I had to be!

    It’s not just about impressing a date, either. Knowing the stars can mean the difference between life and death if you’re lost.

    • I studied Celestial Navigation at the Naval Academy, Roz . . . so that probably does impact my appreciation for understanding what’s above me, as a function of understanding what’s below me . . .

      • I can’t even imagine how complex a study that must have been. I’m just proud of myself for finding Polaris and a few constellations!

        (I carry a compass and a Swiss Army knife, too!)

    • Glad you enjoyed . . . and the planets, in particular, are so bright that they are typically visible even in the most light-polluted areas. It only takes knowing one of them to impress those who never look up!!!

  14. Thank you Eric for a wonderful site, I have grown up with my parents and great-grandparents in doing everything by the position of the stars along with the Moon phase and the sun. Planting and fishing by the moon, sun and star calendar have always been loyally adhered to by my family for generations, although now you have pointed out that it can be used ‘for evil or the thought of evil meaning to beat others by the knowleage that you know’, this sums up some of the interesting points that are bought up if I even mention what I sit e

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  16. i really love anything about astronomy especially constellations. hope i can have more time in star gazing. =) nice blog. learned so much from it.

  17. Thank you for this post! I’m so frustrated here in Dallas because the light pollution is terrible. In Minnesota I knew just where to go to see the stars…

  18. Wow – thank you so much! this is joy for my eyes to read your post!

    the atmosphere in full glory – is there anything greater!

    thank you once more! the night is upon us

  19. My kids were never interested in the night sky until we took a holiday in the highlands of Scotland where the is no light pollution.

    They were amazed that so many stars were visible and wanted to know what they all were. I’ll get them to read this post and they can write about the night sky in my blog.

    Thanks for the post, it’s inspired me to get everyone outside tonight!

    Cheshire house removals and man and van services

  20. I have a 10×50 power pair of binoculars. Is that powerful enough for a place like Belleville, Illinois? Also, I can almost always recognize several constellations beacuse I’ve been looking at the stars off and on even since I was four or five years old and I’m 32 now. *BG*

    Even when I lived in Arizona (especially Flagstaff), I could always see several constellations and several times saw not just just the Dippers but the larger constellations they were located in (the Bears)…not to mention Leo and once…even Auriga (I think).

  21. Good post!

    I never considered using the stars above as a romantic topic – perhaps I should try! I am somewhat knowledgable on the subject (though far less than you).

    The last time I stargazed with some friends my girlfriend was like “Can we leave it’s cold” and well, that kinda ruined everything.

  22. Its an interesting post. Here in the UK you can only really see the most common stars due to so much light pollution. While I was on holiday to Maldives few years back – I realised the true beauty of the stars standing in the dark at the edge of the beech surrounding by nothing apart from the sky – It brought a tear to my eye just by admiring the excitement that was displayed for us in the natural sky at night – me and my partner just watched the stars and listened to the mild wooshing of the water. for hours.

    Since then I have someone started gaining an interest into the stars and stuff which we so take as granted. With the added phone application on my HTC I am able to understand the stars and their power allot more and in more detail.

    Nice Post mate – well done.

    • For me that “WOW” moment came while at sea in the North Atlantic on a 98-foot sailboat, with NO light at all . . . you suddenly understood the stories behind the constellations better when you could see ALL of their stars.

  23. Glad to see you get so many positive responses. Nature viewing, including astronomy, has so much competition now. Keep it up!

  24. Thanks to everybody yesterday and today (and in the days to come) for great comments. I appreciate them!! I hope you will take the time while you are here to look at the works being presented by some of the other writers at Indie Albany . . . we’re a consortium of 14 people right now, bound together by the desire to write often and well, with no commercial interests or financial motivations marring the creative act we’re undertaking together. So it’s really delightful to see the interest that this endeavor is generating!

  25. Brilliant. I have always loved learning about the stars and planets and space. Thanks for the lesson–I needed to refresh my starry knowledge. 😀

  26. If I point out the name of a star, planet, plant, or other natural feature, people don’t look at me and wonder how I know that. More often, they look at me as a fool for wasting my time knowing such “unimportant” trivia. Sad that the general public views such knowledge as less important than who got eliminated last on the reality show, or who starred in what movie. Perhaps I am just hanging out with the wrong crowd.

  27. Thank you very much! Very romantic and useful post. I’ve never been interested in stars when I lived in Moscow. You can’t see stars in the megapolis. Now I spend half a year in my flat in a small town in Italy. Vow! There are lots of bright stars in the sky! And I wish to know their names.

    • I don’t know where you are, Vicky, but I bet if you could find a park or an open field in your city late at night, you should be able to at least see Jupiter, Venus, Mars, Sirius and some of the brighter stars in the big three constellations. I have seen Jupiter and Venus from mid-town Manhattan, so I can’t imagine things get any brighter than that!!! You just have to know where to look, and when.

  28. What a magnificent piece of knowledge to share. Here I am, with a full night of stars and for the first time I might actually try to identify them. I have no doubt that in doing so, it will give me some perspective of the earths position with the surrounding stars. In fact, we all love and admire nature so much, so why have people forgotten the stars? I see you have given many of us now, the gift of silence, being in the present moment and gratitude for this beautiful earth. And for that I thank you.

    • Contemplating the scale of the object we see in the sky does more to put things in perspective than just about any other activity I can imagine . . . there are many films on Youtube that show the scale of some of the larger stars we can see in the night sky, and the difference between them, our own Sun, and the Earth is beyond human understanding, I think.

  29. The more I think about what’s out there, the scarier it seems! Although, whenever I have to explain the concept of infinity to my daughters, I just ask them to ‘tell me what the highest number in the world is’. And once they think about that, I just relate that concept / idea to infinity and the night sky.

  30. Eric J,
    Great work by you on the stars and Universe. So very few people ever see the night sky for all the man- manufactured light we insist on obliterating the night sky with, even here in Barbados.
    It was only in the pagan days, man really knew the heavens as he should. Christianity put an end to that, except for the star above the creche.

  31. Great site. I’m a backyard astronomer and think you’ve done a super job with your entry. Glad to see that you use the info for good. Enjoy your skies, particularly in the hot tob.

  32. what a great entry! I was just pointing out numerous constellations the other night and was surprised to see that teenagers actually don’t know any besides the “Big Dipper” and I was a little frustrated by this. I’m glad to have stumbled upon your entry

  33. Fantastic blog post – I love the combination of science, romance & dating tips. It definitely works too (I know a few constellations, but I have a terrible memory for facts and my sense of space/geography isn’t great either) – one of my favourite all time memories is that of lying on the beach having the constellations pointed out to me by my other half about 2 years ago…we’re now getting married in 3 weeks time!

    • The heavens never disappoint, when properly deployed . . .

      Love the HVAC Engineering blog!! Spent a good chunk of my career working in nuclear engineering field, where efficient fluid flow is of utmost importance . . . added you to the Indie Albany blogroll.

      • Thank-you! I’m hoping to entice a few youngesters into engineering through the powers of blogging. Ideally into building services but I’m not that picky.
        Nuclear engineering is fascinating, it’s not an area my company is currently working in…but who knows where the future may lead.

  34. Wonderful post! Whenever I’m outside at night, I always look up. I don’t always know the names of the constellations, but I love looking! I’m a bit west of you, and this morning, my husband pointed out Orion to me as he was walking to his truck to leave for work. The other night I noticed a bright star that could only be a planet – must have been Jupiter – Thanks!

  35. How sad it is that light polution from our cities and major towns has deprived us of a proper sight of the Milky Way. I recently spent a few days in the Scottish borders, during the time of the last meteor storms and saw the Galaxy in all its glory for the first time in many, many years. My niece, who has lived in the city all her life asked me what it was!

    • What’s interesting to me is that I don’t really remember when I stopped seeing it . . . . I know I did as a child, I know I do when I go the mountains or other isolated areas, but I don’t know when I looked up for the first time and said “Huh . . . where’d the galactic plane of the Milky Way go??”

  36. Excellent job. I too spend many a night with my head tilted upward looking at our celestial neighbors. I was just thinking about the Pleiades last night and how the Japanese turned them into a logo.

  37. Great, informative post. I’ve always had my favorite constellations, but I feel those were mainly made up of the only ones I can recognize on a regular basis. Looking forward to spotting these other ones you’ve mentioned, and maybe using this knowledge for evil as well. Thanks!

  38. Thank you so much. This from the weekly column I just wrote:
    ” I had a date with Mom and Dad this past weekend to plant spring bulbs and rosehip roses over them. The November sky Saturday night was beyond any sky I have ever seen. Huge Ursa Major at the north horizon, Cassopeia in the center, Pleiades to the East: blinking my eyes, I could distinguish different sets of colored stars each blink. The milky way was in strata, layered under and over, and what was that huge globe of brilliance to the South? When I removed my glasses to lay to rest, I glanced out the kitchen window to the East and saw a light, a glow. But there are no lights to be seen on a moonless night in the Chequamegon. Rising, I put on my specs to investigate. It was spectacular starglow. To think of this, over all the earth and its inhabitants.”
    I’ve been looking for a site to corroborate what I saw, and you did it! And that hugeness in the South must have been Jupiter. What a following you have! Thank you.
    Kriss from northern WI, USA.

  39. Gravity is an amazing thing we had the change to watch the spring tide a couple of years ago when the moon was at its closes to the earth, not only was the sky very clear and bright the the wave coming in were thrilling.

  40. There’s is some story behind those twinkling wonders up above. When I moved into the city, I thought that clear skies would be rare, but not entirely. Had spotted Sirius the night before. But, the best constellation of all- easiest to spot is Orion. Too difficult to miss that one..

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