Table of Contents

 



 

Plan 1: Constellation and Asterism Viewing for beginners

Equipment Requirements:

  • Star Chart (highly recommended!  Print a pdf! (link))
  • binoculars, small telescope or the naked eye are all adequate for this viewing plan!

It’s best to view constellations with the naked eye, in an area with minimal sky glow and a wide field of view! Seeing from horizon to horizon is optimal, but it is not always easy to find a viewing spot that meets both criteria, especially in a mountainous state like Colorado.  Even if you plan to view from an urban setting you will be able to see many constellations, once you have trained your eyes to find their brightest stars first and then identify their basic shapes! Finding the constellations is the best first step in star gazing. The constellations divide the sky into regions, kind of like state or country lines on a map, so once you can identify these regions it will become easier to find cool astronomical objects within them!  Familiarize yourself with the night sky before getting too ambitious with your observation plan. The more familiar you become with the constellations, the more eager you will be to explore them deeper!

 

 

If you are looking for an easy start point for getting outside and navigating the night sky without traveling into a dark sky zone or purchasing new equipment, then this will provide you with a fine platform!  **Beware though, you may be inspired to dig deeper after your initial interest is ignited!  

 

Once you have your Star Chart in hand, and the sun has set, you are ready for viewing! Depending upon the season, different constellations will be visible at different times and at different locations in the sky.  Make sure your chart corresponds with the season and times when you are viewing! Your Star Chart should indicate the current season or the current the month (if you used my link).  This shows you what will be visible. I highly recommend that first timer use a virtual Star Chart App on your smartphone or tablet.  Once you develop an eye for the sky, it will be easier to identify constellations with a paper star chart. Using both an app and a paper chart together is a very effective way to hone your skills!

Not all constellations are visible year round, and the sky moves quickly above us throughout the night. Be prepared for this if it is your first viewing session.  However, circumpolar constellations are visible all night long.  

Here in Colorado we are at a Latitude of approximately 39 degrees N.  This means that we will see Polaris, (the North Star), at 39 degrees above the northern horizon.  Not only is Polaris visible all year long, it is the only star to remain in a constant position in the night sky.   The rest of the sky appears to rotate around Polaris in a counterclockwise direction as time passes.  This is due to Earth’s rotation.  Polaris is aligned with the Earth’s North Pole.  Everything in the sky appears to move East to West.  Think of the path of the Sun, the Moon and the planets along the ecliptic.  They all move East to West as seen from our perspective on Earth!

 

 

*Polaris and the Big Dipper

This is the brightest circumpolar asterism in the northern hemisphere; Visible in urban settings all year long in the northern skyPolaris is part of a constellation called Ursa Minor.  We often think of this constellation as the Little Dipper.  The best way to find Polaris is by first finding the Big Dipper, which is part of the constellation Ursa Major.  The Big Dipper is a ladle shaped asterism that is always in the Northern sky. The Pointer Stars (Dubhe and Merak), on the pouring side of the cup, point directly toward Polaris.  

Pointer Stars

The image illustrates this, but be sure to remember that the orientation of the Big Dipper will change throughout the night.  It will rotate around Polaris in a counterclockwise direction, but the Pointer Stars will always point to Polaris!Once you have found the Big Dipper and identified Polaris, you should be able to orient yourself beneath the night sky.  Use Polaris to face due north.


 

Mizar and Alcor*Visible in urban settings, Rises in the east starting early Spring, visible all summer until early fall when he sets early in the west

One of the easiest initial observation targets is in the handle of the big Dipper.  Even in semi-dark skies this “double star” is faintly visible with the naked eye. The second to last star in the handle is a famous double star.  Mizar is the brighter of the two and Alcor is the faintly visible second star. Scientists have discovered that these two stars are part of a 6-star system.  Mizar is part of a quadruple star system and Alcor is part of a binary system!

alcor mizar


 

Arcturus in Bootes*Visible in urban settings, Rises in the east starting early Spring, visible all summer until early fall when he sets early in the west

Moving away from the Big Dipper we will use the arc of the handle to “arc to Arcturus.”  Follow the path of the arc several fist lengths across the sky and you will come to a bright reddish star called Arcturus, which is part of the constellation Bootes.  Bootes is supposed to be a shepherd, but it looks more like a kite.  Arcturus is the bottom point on the kite. Bootes is best seen in Summer and Spring.  It is not visible at all during part of Fall, and it is only visible quite early in the morning during the winter months.    

bootes void 1024x795


 Spica; *Visible in Virgo Winter, Spring Summer

From Arcturus, we will “spike” toward Spica, a bright blue star in the constellation Virgo.  Virgo is a difficult constellation to see from an urban setting, but Spica will be visible during Summer and Spring, as well as early in the morning during Winter.

ArcToArcturusSpikeToSpica


 

Cassiopeia; *One of the most prominent constellations; Visible in urban settings all year long in the northern sky.

Before completely leaving the northern sky, its rewarding to identify one more prominent constellation.  Cassiopeia is recognized as a W-shape on the other side of Polaris from the Big Dipper. Now remember that the northern sky is rotating counterclockwise around Polaris pretty quickly throughout the night, so all of this circumpolar constellations will appear in a multitude of different orientations throughout the night.  According to mythology, Cassiopeia was a vain queen who angered the Sea god Poseidon and was banished to a mocking throne in the heavens that held her upside down for half of the night. The W is supposed to represent the chair in which the queen sits.

cassiopeia


 

Perseus, Andromeda and Pegasus*Best viewed in the east during Fall and in the west during Winter; Can be seen rising later at night in the northeast during summer. Remember that they are always circling Polaris in a counterclockwise motion.

These 3 constellations are all near Cassiopeia, since their mythologies are connected with hers.  Andromeda was Cassiopeia’s daughter, who paid the price for her mother’s vanity. Perseus rescued Andromeda from her torture sentence, but prior to the rescue he defeated Medusa by decapitation.  Pegasus, the winged horse sprang up from Medusa’s blood. In the sky though, its difficult to depict any of these theatrics.  The constellations are faint and difficult to identify from an urban setting, but quite beautiful in dark skies.The best way to find them is to first identify Polaris, and then Cassiopeia. Perseus and Pegasus are usually easier to recognize than Andromeda.

Just below the Great Square, Andromeda rises next. She is the most difficult to distinguish.  Use a Star chart to trace her shape and identify her star pattern. She appears as a great arc connected to the Pegasus.  When she sits high in the sky, she arcs over Cassiopeia, between Perseus and Cygnus.Once Pegasus has risen above Cassiopeia and Andromeda is next to Cassiopeia, Perseus will also rise from the northeast.  Perseus is shaped like a wishbone.

Perseus; *Best viewed setting in the west in Spring or rising in the east in early Fall.  Visible high in the sky throughout Winter

Perseus has a distinct wishbone shape that is easily recognized in dark skies, but not as easy to spot in urban settings, since the constellation is made of a dense collection of fainter stars rather than a pattern of consistently bright stars like Cassiopeia and the Big Dipper.  Algol, the famous Demon Star is Perseus’ 2nd brightest star. It is an eclipsing binary meaning its magnitude changes, so it appears to be blink every few days.

perseusAlgol

Pegasus

During summer, when Cassiopeia appears as a horizontal W in the north, then Pegasus will be rising just to her east.  Pegasus, aka The Great Square, appears as a huge square, twice the size of Cassiopeia. Connected to one of the corners of The Great Square is Andromeda.

greatSquareAndromedaGalaxyCassiopea

Andromeda   

This elusive constellation has a V shape in the sky just to the left of Pegasus.  She is difficult to see well in urban settings, but certainly worth finding. She holds a spectacular treasure: The Andromeda Galaxy (M31).  This is visible as a smudge in dark skies with the naked eye, but a telescope enhances the view substantially.  Even with binoculars you can recognize the blurred shape of a spiral galaxy.

AndromedaGalaxy


 The Summer Triangle (Asterism)

*This asterism is best seen in Summer. It is made up of the brightest stars from three surrounding constellations. 

Vega from the constellation Lyra, is the brightest of the three, and sits at the top of the triangle and occupies a perch high in the sky throughout Summer. Lyra is a small harp or the Lyre.

Deneb from the constellation Cygnus, is the bottom left.Cygnus is the Swan.  Many intriguing deep sky objects are found in this constellation, as well as the double star Albireo, which acts as the swan’s head.  This is a good one to familiarize yourself with.  It is also referred to as the Northern Cross.    

Altair from the constellation Aquila, is the bottom right.  Aquila is the Eagle.

 summer triangle susan jensen Odessa Washington e1343871013591


 

Corona Borealis (The Northern Crown)

Between the bright stars Arcturus and Vega sits a small but noticeable constellation in the shape of a backwards “C” or a bass clef.  Its brightest star Alphekka (or Gemma) is an eclipsing binary system, which means its apparent magnitude changes slightly during an eclipse (17.4 days).

coronaBor


 

Hercules

Hercules sits between Corona Borealis and the bright star Vega.  Hercules can be identified as a faint trapezoid with 4 limbs branching out, one from each corner.  The limbs curl clockwise around the body. Hercules is renown for holding the beautiful globular cluster known as The Great Hercules Cluster or M13.

hercules


 The Spring Triangle (Asterism)

*This is visible from February to May.  It is made up of the brightest stars from three surrounding constellations.

Regulus from the constellation Leo. Leo the Lion is the 5th constellation of the Zodiac, meaning that it is located on the ecliptic.

Arcturus from the constellation Bootes.  Bootes is the shepherd, or more visually, the kite.

Spica from the constellation Virgo.  Virgo is the 6th constellation of the Zodiac, and also located on the ecliptic.

springTriangle2


The Winter Triangle (Asterism)

Betelgeuse, Sirius and Procyon

The constellations Canis Major and Canis Minor each have a beautiful bright star by which they are recognized.  These are called the Dog Stars. But they are also part of a prominent Winter asterism called The Winter Triangle.  Canis Major, known in mythology as Orion’s hunting dog, has Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, with a magnitude of -1.46.  Sirius is really a binary star system made up of Sirius A and a white dwarf.  Canis Minor has a bright star as well; Procyon, the 8th brightest in the night sky.   Procyon is also a binary system consisting of a main sequence star and a white dwarf.  Both Sirius and Procyon appear as single bright stars with the naked eye. Once you have found Orion, and located Betelgeuse, look behind him (east) for his loyal dogs and see the Winter Triangle.

Star Pattern
The Winter Triangle

Capella in Auriga*Best viewed in Spring, faint except for Capella

In the constellation Auriga, the bright star Capella sits just across the ecliptic from Aldebaran.   It is the 3rd brightest star in the northern hemisphere, after Vega and Arcturus.  The constellation has a pentagon shape that occupies the region of sky between Taurus, Gemini, Orion and Perseus.  Look first for Capella and then find the pentagon shape that makes the constellation Auriga.

Star Pattern
Capella in Auriga

Orion; *One of the most prominent constellations in the northern hemisphere, and very large; Visible Winter, Spring, Fall

Along with the Big Dipper, Orion’s belt is the most recognizable asterism in the night sky. The Great Orion Nebula, located just beneath Orion’s belt (his sword), is visible with the naked eye.  It is a spectacular stellar nursery where new stars are being born. Betelgeuse and Rigel are two other prominent features in Orion. Betelgeuse is the Red Giant that makes up Orion’s right shoulder.  Rigel is the beautiful blue star that makes up Orion’s left foot.

 

Star Pattern
Orion

 

 The Zodiac

The constellations of the Zodiac all fall along the ecliptic, meaning the Sun, Moon and planets move through these constellations from our perspective on Earth as they pass through the sky above us.  Follow the path of the sun in the sky to find anything that falls along the ecliptic. You can also identify the ecliptic with Star Chart apps or software.  This is how astrology works.  As the Sun, Moon and planets move through the zodiacal constellations, they “change signs”.  Due to precession, the ancient zodiacal boundaries have shifted. Traditionally (Tropical Zodiac), the Sun-season of Leo was between July 22-August 22.  Currently (Sidereal Zodiac), the Sun transits the bounds of Leo between August 16-September 15. When the Sun is in a constellation, that constellation will not be visible to you at night.  However, you can easily observe the Moon’s movement through the zodiac if you familiarize yourself with the night sky!

Most of the Stargazing software/Apps have a feature that identifies the ecliptic.  This is helpful for finding any of the solar system bodies as well as all of the constellations in the Zodiac.

Many astronomers include Ophiucus in the Zodiac as the 13th constellation, since it sits between Scorpius and Sagitarius on the ecliptic.  However, it is not included in traditional astrology.

zodiac on ecliptic


Aries

This is the 1st sign in the Zodiac.  The constellation of Aries is quite small and difficult to see.  It is visible in Fall, rising in the east a couple of hours after sunset, just above Taurus.


Taurus, Hyades and the Pleiades; *Winter, Spring, Fall

Taurus, the bull,  is the 2nd sign in the Zodiac.  This is a truly beautiful constellation.  She rises in the east a couple hours after sunset throughout Fall, is prominent high in sky throughout Winter, just above Orion, and appears closer to the Western horizon throughout Spring. The 3 most recognizable features of Taurus are Hyades, Pleiades and Aldebaran .

Hyades is the V-shaped star cluster which makes up the face of Taurus.  

Aldebaran is the brightest red star in Hyades.

Pleiades, the 7 sisters, is a a famous open star cluster just west of Hyades.  It is shaped like a tiny dipper, and 7 stars can be seen with the naked eye. This constellation is also called Subaru by the Japanese and is recognizable in the car logo!      

taurus constellation with stars


Gemini the Twins; *Late fall to early Spring

Gemini is the 3rd sign in the Zodiac, so it follows Taurus on the ecliptic.  The Twins are fun and easy to find when they are in the sky. Castor and Pollux, the mischievous pair, make up the constellation Gemini.  Pollux stands on the East and Castor on the West. Their “head” stars hold their namesakes. In early Winter they are seen rising sideways in the East with Castor rising first.  Throughout winter they move higher in the sky. By spring they are nicely visible standing upright and holding hands in the west shortly after sunset.

GeminiTheTwins


Cancer

Cancer the crab is the 4th sign in the Zodiac.  It is faint on the ecliptic between Gemini and Leo, but it contains a beautiful open cluster to behold with binoculars or a small telescope:  The Beehive Cluster or Praesepe.  

cancer beehive


 Leo*Spring, Summer, Winter

Leo the Lion is the beautiful 5th constellation in the Zodiac.  It is recognizable in the night sky as the sickle, because the stars making up the head of the lion form a bright sickle shaped curve, which also looks like a backwards question mark.  Leo’s brightest star is Regulus, which sits at the bottom of the sickle. Regulus appears to be the lion’s front paw. Leo begins rising in the the southeast on late winter nights and stays in the southern sky until early summer, where he sets early in the west just after sundown. 

regulus sickle leo


Virgo; *Spring and Summer

Virgo, the 6th constellation of the Zodiac, is identifiable by its brightest star: Spica.  The constellation is faint, except for Spica, and it can best be seen riding the ecliptic during Spring and Summer.

Virgo w spica


Libra; *Summer

Libra, the 7th constellation of the Zodiac, represents a scale of balance.  It is faint on the ecliptic, but two of its stars are visible between Antares (of Scorpius) and Spica (of Virgo) during Summer.  

Libra


 

Scorpius; *Summer; The top half is visible in urban settings

Scorpius, the 8th constellation in the Zodiac, is stunning when viewed in its entirety.  It’s only visible in the summer, low on the southern horizon. Mythology keeps Scorpius and Orion out of the sky together, since they are ancient enemies.  Scorpius’ brightest star is the red giant Antares. Antares sits at the head of the scorpion. The 3 stars that make up the scorpion’s claws align almost vertically in the southern sky when Scorpius is visible, making them easy to spot. If you are lucky enough to see the beautiful spiral tail, you are in for a visual treat. Often times the tail is too close to the horizon to be able to

Star Pattern
Scorpius with bright star Antares

Sagittarius; *Summer; Visible in urban settings but the Milky Way is difficult to see

The 9th constellation in the Zodiac is also known as The Teapot, because it resembles a teapot, with steam flowing out of its spout.  The steam is the Milky Way, if you're lucky enough to be able to see it! Sagittarius rises just after Scorpius in the summer sky. When looking at Sagitarius, you are actually looking toward the center of our galaxy! 

Star Pattern Sagittarius the Teapot


Capricornus; *very faint; late Summer

Capricornus, the Sea-goat, is the 10th constellation in the Zodiac.  He is difficult to see from an urban setting.


Aquarius; *very faint; Fall

The 11th sign of the Zodiac is Aquarius, the  Water Bearer.


Pisces; *very faint; Winter

Pisces is the 12th and final sign in the Zodiac. 



 

 Plan 2: Viewing the Planets

To find the planets you will need to research their location in the night sky.  This is easy to do!  Remember that the planets will always appear somewhere along the ecliptic.  They are not always visible in the night sky; sometimes they are “up” during daytime. Naked Eye Planets is a good planetary position resource.

ASTRONOMY SOFTWARE or STAR CHART APPS are excellent places to find current planetary locations.  Star Walk provides a “Live Sky” feature which provides daily at-a-glance information outlining which planets are visible at what times.  This is helpful when planning an observation session. Remember, the planets move along the ecliptic more slowly than the Sun and the Moon, so when they are visible in a certain area of the sky at a certain time, they will remain so for much of the viewing season.

 

Mercury moves the fastest and is often close to the Sun, making viewing difficult.

Venus is the brightest planet, and the brightest object in the night sky, second to the Moon.  She appears as a morning or an evening “star”.Mars appears reddish in the sky, and quite bright.

Jupiter is quite bright and can easily be observed with the naked eye, but through a small telescope or binoculars, Jupiter’s 4 Galilean moons can also be seen.

Saturn is slightly less bright than Jupiter.  With a small telescope Saturn’s rings are recognizable.Uranus is not visible with the naked eye in an urban setting, but it can be seen faintly in dark skies.

Neptune requires a telescope for viewing.

     

A SIDEREAL EPHEMERIS will give you the zodiacal constellation placement of the Sun, Moon and planets on any given date, but be sure that you are looking at the sidereal positions, not just sidereal time.  Otherwise the positions (Standard Tropical Ephemeris) will be off by one zodiacal sign.  



 

Plan 3:  Popular binocular/ Small telescope Objects

Binocular Object List-  This is an excellent list of binocular objects, catoregized by which constellation they appear in.

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