Astronomy Tips for Learning the Constellations

Janette Waldron's image for:
"Astronomy Tips for Learning the Constellations"
Image by: 

Knowing the constellations allows one to enjoy the magical tapestry of stars within the sky a whole lot more. There are a host of ways to learn the constellations. But the author personally knows that by learning the constellations of the night sky through mythology as well as photography, one can recall them so much easier. In fact, with the right approach and attitude, one can learn quite a few of the main constellations in as little as two weeks if they are determined. Consequently you will be able to locate star clusters, the nebulae and planets a whole lot easier. By learning this way, you will remember them and their relationship to each other. No longer will those little specks of light be unknown, the skies above will become an interrelated world of wonder, mythology and so much more. You will be able to use your telescope or binoculars to your best advantage and that is definitely a plus.

One excellent example of learning the constellations through mythology are the constellations of Pegasus, Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Perseus, Cepheus and Cetus. They sit very high on winter nights. These are all related to the story of Perseus who came back victorious after a battle with Medusa. Perseus responded to Andromeda’s cries for help while chained to a rock beside the sea to appease Cetus the sea monster. Perseus slew the monster of course and flew off with Andromeda on Pegasus the horse. The king and queen of Ethiopia (Cepheus and Cassiopeia) are said to have sighed with relief. See this is far more interesting than merely knowing the names of the constellations isn't it?.Teens will certainly benefit from learning this way and it will certainly enhance their scientific knowledge. Another ideal way to learn the constellations is to become familiar with what is deemed the starry pathways within the sky.

These are The circle of the Zodiac, The Milky Way and the ring of the circumpolar stars. These actually cross each other’s paths in a manner of speaking and contain the majority of the constellations. It is far easier to learn the constellations of the Milky Way during the late summer and fall. This is because an arch appears high overhead which starts with Scorpius in the south. One will then note Sagittarius the Archer, Aquilla the Eagle, Cygnus the Swan, Cepheus, Cassiopeia and Perseus and Auriga rising to the northeast. Trying to view the Milky Way overhead in May is difficult as it does not sit overhead, it simply skirts the horizon in numerous directions. One can learn the constellations season by season as they appear and that makes it so much easier. In the summer, one can note Sagittarius, Scorpio, Libra and Virgo. Sagittarius and Scorpio are part of the Milky Way. These are easily located where the circle of the zodiac crosses the circle of the Milky Way.

If you are looking for Taurus and Gemini, these are located where the circle of the Zodiac again crosses the Milk Way. In the fall, early evening stargazing will reveal Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces. In the winter the skies will reveal Aries, Taurus and Gemini. The springtime has the constellations of Cancer, Leo and Virgo looking very elegant indeed. If you were seeking Pegasus, you will note that it appears to be galloping upside down along the Milky Way with Andromeda clutching its tail. Who was Andromeda? Andromeda was the daughter of Cepheus and Cassiopeia. Andromeda's mother believed that she and her daughter were far more beautiful than any of Poseidon's numerous nymphs. She began to taunt the God of the Seas until he decided enough was enough. Poseidon then punished the self centred mother by chaining her and her daughter naked to a rock. They were to be sacrificed to a sea monster.

Perseus who was fresh from slaying the Gorgon Medusa, happened to be passing by. He was attracted by Andromeda’s beauty and consequently agreed to rescue her on the promise that they would marry after. But Cepheus and Cassiopeia were not keen for Andromeda to marry Perseus. But  they had little choice so agreed. Perseus then skimmed over the water and lopped the monster's head off. The wedding occurred soon after. At the wedding (no doubt due to Cassiopeia’s insistence) relatives disrupted the proceedings. The outcome was that Cassiopeia and Cepheus lost their lives. Poseidon placed them both in the heavens. Later Athene placed Andromeda in the same region within the sky, right between her parents. Now the asterism consists of the brightest star which is Alpharetta (otherwise known as Sirrah). This denotes Andromeda’s head, the rest of the principal stars mark out other parts of her body. Many astronomers feel that the remaining stars trace her flowing hair.

Those hoping to observe Sagittarius should look for three bright stars in a curved line. This looks like a bow to many observers. This constellation in part, represents Cheiron the king of Centaurs. Sagittarius if half man, half beast. Back in ancient times these three bright stars were said to have been placed within the skies to guide the Argonauts in their travels. The Romans named the constellation Sagittarius. ‘Sagitta’ is Latin for arrow. The bow is outlined by three stars, Lambda Sgr, ‘Kaus Borealis’ ( the northern part of the bow) Delta Sgr, ‘Kaus Meridionalis’ ( The middle part of the bow) Epsilon Sgr, ‘Kaus Australis’ the southern part of the bow and the arrow tip ‘gamma Sgr, ‘Al Nasl’ the point. The asterism of the bow is very apparent, but it does take some imagination to see the half man, half beast pulling back on the string. As you can see, the mythology of the constellations is so interesting that you will certainly learn them very quickly.

For children, the Big Dipper will be the easiest cluster of stars to find in the sky. Although it’s not really a constellation they can branch out from there. These bright stars (four) form a bowl while three more trace out a handle. This creates a very recognizable pattern within the night sky. Its an ideal starting point for children to locate surrounding constellations. Now if one traced a line with the eyes between the stars Dubhe and Merak which sit at the end of the bowl of the Big Dipper, and extended it approximately five times the distance, they will find Polaris. Polaris is the brightest star in Ursa Minor the Little Bear which contains the Little Dipper. The Little Dipper is made up of seven stars. Four in the bowl and three in its handle like its big brother. Trace a visual line from the bowl of the Big Dipper past the North Star and keep going at an equal distance, you will see an eye-catching group of stars that form a very distinct Letter M or W. You have found Cassiopeia, The Queen of Ethiopia. As you can see, learning the constellations can be educational, fun and very challenging. Invest in a star chart, learn the compass points then begin your magical adventure into stargazing.

More about this author: Janette Waldron

From Around the Web