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The Stars at Night are Big and Bright...

Navigating the Night Sky

For the most part, we are blessed in this area to have pretty dark skies. The further you can get from street lights the more you will be able to see. Unless you are looking at the Moon it is best when there is little or no Moon. So how do you figure out what constellation you are looking at? Pretty simple actually.

First, we need to find Polaris, the North Star. That star is very close to the North Celestial Pole (NCP). That is the point that the stars appear to pivot on. Finding Polaris is simple. Find the Big Dipper. The two stars at the end of the dipper will point in the direction of Polaris.

Once you find Polaris place your back to it. A line directly overhead running from north to south divides the sky into east and west hemispheres. A line running east and west at 90° from Polaris (this is the celestial equator) further divides the sky into quarters. So now you have a northeast, southeast, northwest and southwest quadrant. Finding constellations can be made easy by knowing just a few and then “star hopping” to another constellation. Example: Lets assume you know the constellation ORION. By looking at a constellation chart you see that TAURUS is just to the northwest of Orion. GEMINI is just to the northeast. There are constellation charts available online for free, or very little cost. A much bigger help is a Star and Planet Locator made by Edmunds Scientific. These will cost you about $12. The locator will allow you to set the date and time and see what constellations are found in the night sky for that date and time. I recommend using a small penlight with a red lens or red cellophane so you don’t lose your night vision.

Finding planets is a bit more difficult. The Moon and all the planets will be found within a hand width extended at arm’s length north and south of the celestial equator. On the back of the locator you will find the planet and what constellation it is currently in. There are five naked-eye planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Enjoy!

Please feel free to contact me at mwyatt@comancheisd.net if you have any questions. I may not know the answer, but I will try my best to find it. I will respond to your email and hope to be able to post your question and the answer in the Chief.

Marty Wyatt

Astronomy Teacher

Comanche High School

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