Weekly astronomy column: Most satisfying is being able to look up at the night sky and find some familiarity. Rather than a haphazard host of stars, for thousands of years people have been connecting with the sky by connecting the stars in recognizable patterns, called constellations.
Most satisfying is being able to look up at the night sky and find some familiarity. Rather than a haphazard host of stars, for thousands of years people have been connecting with the sky by connecting the stars in recognizable patterns, called constellations.
Fundamental to learning astronomy and even acknowledged by professional astronomers, the constellations serve as guideposts. For eons we used them to help us calculate the calendar and times of planting and harvest; we used them for navigation across the ocean and also across the land.
Today, although we do not technically “need” them for detailed study of the heavens, in another sense perhaps we do need them. Constellations help draw us from an early age to appreciate the starry creation, and urge us to look past ourselves. Like looking at anything else in nature, witnessing the universe rekindles in us a sense of awe and humility. It is fine to know the facts, figures and theories, but all ages and all people need to begin at the basic beauty of what is before us. Constellations help us begin to make sense of the cosmos, to remember the stars and in a way, make them our friends.
The next clear night, take a look northward. This amazing area of the sky is always present; unlike the rest of the stars, they never set. They are always above the flat horizon, if they are in the north.
Stars, just like the sun and moon, rise in the east and set in the west. What is really happening is that the world on which you stand is turning the other way - west to east, making the sky appear to move. This goes on day and night. An amazing thought is that in broad daylight, the stars continue to rise and set, above the blue sky.
Looking north, the stars also seem to rotate, but constantly miss the horizon. They are “circumpolar”- moving in a 24-hour circle around the pole, ever above the horizon. The North Star happens to lie right next to a point in the northern sky where our Earth’s axis of rotation points.
Next time you’re at the North Pole, lean against the barbershop pole and look up - assuming you’re in the midst of six months of night. Before you totally freeze to said pole, take a gander at the North Star, directly overhead. From the North Pole, the entire sky is “circumpolar” and never sets. The stars around the horizon lie on the “Celestial Equator.”
If you were at the equator, leaning against a warm palm tree, you could look up and see - besides palm fronds and falling coconuts - the stars along the Celestial Equator passing right overhead. From there, the North Star is right at the north point on the horizon.
Most of us live between these extremes. The North Star appears approximately as high in the sky as your latitude. If you live at 40 degrees North Latitude, the North Star is about 40 degrees up (almost halfway up) from the north horizon.
On winter evenings, look for the seven stars marking the Big Dipper, to the right of the North Star. The top stars of the Dipper’s “bowl” serve as convenient pointers to the North Star. The Big Dipper appears to stand on its handle.
Look about an equal distance to the left of the North Star for the “M” shape, five stars marking Cassiopeia.
On spring evenings, the Big Dipper is up high, above the North Star; on summer evenings, look to the left and in fall, the Big Dipper scrapes the north horizon during the evening.
So where’s the Little Dipper? Smaller and fainter than the Big Dipper, the North Star marks the end of the Little Dipper’s “handle.” The two dippers face each other but in opposing directions, seemingly forever turning around the sky, once every day.
Full moon arrives Jan. 19.
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Keep looking up!