Constellations: What are they and how to find them?

Photo: NASA Images

Constellations, what are they exactly? The chances are you’ve seen them if you have ever glanced up at the sky. From the “Big Bear” to “Orion”, you may even know about a few of them and the ancient myths that they represent. You may even be wondering why they matter and how you can find them while observing the night sky. In this article, I will shed some light on the constellations and offer some tips that may help you with identifying them.

“The stars we are given. The constellations we make. That is to say, stars exist in the cosmos, but constellations are the imaginary lines we draw between them, the readings we give the sky, the stories we tell.

Rebecca Solnit

When starting off, one of the first hurdles astronomers must overcome is identifying and knowing most of the constellations. This skill is necessary for navigating the night sky effectively and efficiently. After all, you can’t expect to find something like the Hercules Cluster if you can’t find Hercules.

This may sound incredibly difficult at first, but it is easier than you think! To begin with, I will categorize some of the main constellations into three groups based upon the time of year in which they are visible.

The Northern Circumpolar Constellations

The stars and objects in the night sky behave in the exact same way as the Sun. They rise in the east and set in the west every night due to the Earth’s rotation. This means that some constellations will rise and set depending on both the time of the day and the time of the year we try to observe them at. However, when a constellation is “circumpolar”, it lies within close proximity to the nearest polar star and never sets below the horizon. This means that a circumpolar constellation will always be in the sky no matter the time of day or year. That makes these constellations perfect to learn for beginners!

The number of circumpolar constellations that are visible in the sky depends on your latitude north of the equator; however, there are about five that can be seen almost everywhere in the northern hemisphere. These constellations are Ursa Major the Big Bear, Ursa Minor the Little Bear, Cassiopeia Queen of Ethiopia, Cepheus the King, and Draco the Dragon.

(Image: © Starry Night Software)
A map of some of the circumpolar constellations.

Ursa Major – The Big Bear (The Big Dipper)

Perhaps the most famous circumpolar star arrangements that you can see is the Big Dipper. Contrary to popular belief, the Big Dipper is actually a smaller part of the parent constellation known as Ursa Major the Big Bear. We can find it in the northern sky very easily due to the bright stars that it is made of. There are four bright stars that form its “bowl-like” shape. Two of these stars are known as the “pointer stars” Merak and Dubhe. If an imaginary line is drawn through them, the line will always “point” towards the North Star, Polaris. This trick is extremely useful for finding the Little Dipper. Additionally, other constellations will be easier to find by being able to locate the Big Dipper.

Ursa Minor – The Little Bear (The Little Dipper)

Talking about the Little Dipper, this arrangement of stars is in the constellation of Ursa Minor and contains the north star, Polaris. This star has its reputation because it lines up almost perfectly with the Earth’s axis of rotation. This means that the star will always “appear” to be at the same place in the sky as the Earth rotates. We can see the north star at the end of the Little Dipper’s “handle”. This constellation is a very useful reference point for finding other constellations and for knowing where north is when you are without a compass. Depending on the amount of light pollution around you, it may be hard to make out the entirety of this constellation; however, Polaris will still most likely be visible in any condition.

Cassiopeia – Queen of Ethiopia

As one of the easiest to see circumpolar constellations, Cassiopeia is the constellation directly across the north star from Ursa Major. It is easy to make out in the sky because of it’s “W-like” shape that contains a few relatively bright stars and star clusters Messier 57, Messier 103, and the Owl Cluster (NGC 457).

Cepheus & Draco – The King & The Dragon

Cepheus and Draco are the other two main circumpolar constellations and are relatively dim by comparison to the others. They are both found in the space that surrounds Ursa Minor between Cassiopeia and Ursa Major. Cepheus and Draco may be difficult to see if you have a lot of light pollution in your area.

The Winter Sky

By turning our backs on the northern night sky, we can find a group of constellations that changes depending on the time of the year. We’ll first discuss the ones you can see at the end of the year. These constellations come alive during the winter season due to the Earth’s tilt and location in its orbit around the Sun along with the cleaner and dryer air that winter usually brings. While there are many constellations in the winter sky, the primary ones can be found in a group known as the “Winter Circle” or “Winter Hexagon”.

(Image Credit: © Dominic Ford)
This sky map shows the winter sky in Bloomington, Indiana at 10:00 p.m. on January 10, 2020.

Orion – The Hunter

Orion the Hunter is perhaps the most famous and easiest to see constellations. He can be identified by his “belt” of three stars in close proximity to each other. It resides at the bottom of the Winter Circle. Betelgeuse and Rigel can be seen at the top left and bottom right of the constellation respectively, and are among the brightest stars in this constellation. Orion’s “sword” is made up of a row of three stars that “hang” down from the belt. Interestingly enough, this middle “star” is actually an object called the Orion Nebula. As we look closer, this object will look more like a fuzzy patch of light than a star.

Canis Major – The Great Dog

If we follow the belt’s direction downwards and to the left, we will find Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Sirius is the primary star of Canis Major the Great Dog. Canis Major was one of Orion’s hunting dogs along with Canis Minor. This makes it helpful to remember their placement in the night sky, as they can both be seen “following” Orion from behind.

Taurus – The Bull

Again, we return to the belt of Orion. Now following it upwards and to the right. This will lead us directly to the red star “Aldebaran” and its parent constellation, Taurus the Bull. Taurus contains objects such as the Messier 1 “Crab Nebula” and Messier 45 the “Pleiades” cluster, and is easily identifiable by it’s “V-shape”. The Crab Nebula resides between the “horns” of Taurus. The Pleiades, also known as “the Seven Sisters”, lays up and to the right of the bull (where its shoulder would be).

Auriga – The Charioteer

Auriga the Charioteer is the top constellation of the Winter Circle, residing at the tip of the horns of Taurus. The five stars of this constellation represent a man on a chariot holding a goat in his hand. Of these, there is a primary yellow star that is known as “Capella”. This constellation is just under zenith (the point straight above you in the sky). A useful tip for finding Auriga is to find the tip of Taurus’ “upper horn” because they share the same star.

(Winter Hexagon, Image: Stellarium Software)

Gemini – The Twins

If we continue counter-clockwise around the Winter Circle from Auriga, we will come across the two stars “Castor” and “Pollux”. These two stars make up the upper part of Gemini the Twins. Another easy way to find this constellation is to draw a line from Rigel through Betelgeuse in Orion upwards to the relatively rectangular constellation. Gemini, like Taurus, is another Zodiac constellation.

Canis Minor – The Little Dog

Made up of two stars, to complete our journey around the Winter Circle we can find Canis Minor the Little Dog. The main one that resides in the Winter Circle, is the white star “Procyon”. Procyon, Betelgeuse (Orion), and Sirius (Canis Major) make up another pattern called the “Winter Triangle”.

Leo – The Lion

Leo the Lion is outside of the winter circle and to the left of Canis Minor. It looks similar to a backward question mark, with its defining blue star known as “Regulus” on the period. It is another one of the well-known “Zodiac” constellations.

Andromeda / Pegasus

Andromeda and Pegasus are combined by four primary stars known as “The Great Square” and are a rather strange-looking grouping of stars. As a part of the upper section of the constellation, there are two separate branches of stars that are the “legs” of Andromeda. The closest galaxy to our own, the Andromeda Galaxy (Messier 31), is right near these legs. It is rather hard to see in places with a lot of light pollution, but it is definitely a sight to see on a clear night. On the other end of the constellation, there are three strands of stars that all make up the front half of Pegasus.

The Summer Sky

The summer sky is hazier and warmer than the brilliant and clear winter sky. These conditions, along with the tilt and position of the Earth in its orbit, make observing the summer sky a little more difficult. It is also dominated by an arrangement of three stars known as the Summer Triangle. These stars are named “Vega”, “Altair”, and “Deneb”. Each resides in their own respective constellations. Knowing the location of the Summer Triangle makes it a little easier to find some of the other constellations that reside in the summer sky.

(Image Credit: © Dominic Ford)
This sky map shows the summer sky in Bloomington, Indiana at 10:00 p.m. on August 15, 2019.

Lyra – The Lyre

When searching for Lyra the Lyre, it is the most important to know about its most prominent star, “Vega”. This star is the brightest of the three that make up the Summer Triangle; thus, making it the easiest one to find. It lies near the zenith in the Summer sky. While small, Lyra is useful to know because it is one of the three constellations in the Summer Triangle. This means that knowing its placement can assist us in finding the other constellations.

Cygnus – The Swan

The second constellation in the Summer Triangle is Cygnus the Swan. Perhaps the easiest way to find Cygnus is to first find “Vega” in the constellation of Lyra. Draw a line eastward from Vega to find the prominent star “Deneb”. This star, along with four other prominent stars, forms a shape called the “Northern Cross”. If the amount of light pollution is substantially low, the Northern Cross can be seen immersed in the Milky Way.

Aquila – The Eagle

Find the third prominent star of the summer triangle called “Altair” in order to find Aquila the Eagle. One of the easiest ways to do this is by following the Milky Way downwards until Altair comes into view. Aquila’s appearance is similar to that of a diamond-shaped kite with a tail following behind it. This is the final constellation in the Summer Triangle.

(Image Credit: NASA)
An image of the Summer Triangle near the constellation of Pegasus.

Sagittarius – The Archer

By continuing to follow the Milky Way downwards past Aquila, an arrangement of stars called “the teapot” comes into view. It received its nickname due to the close resemblance it has to the shape of an old-fashioned teapot. The parent constellation to the teapot is in fact, Sagittarius the Archer. Sagittarius acts as our marker for the Center of our Milky Way Galaxy; making the constellation quite significant.

Scorpius – The Scorpion

The red star “Antares” can be found by looking right from the Teapot and staying close to the horizon. The parent constellation to Antares is, in fact, Scorpius the Scorpion. Scorpius is yet another one of the famous Zodiac constellations. Antares is also known as “the Heart” of Scorpius, due to its deep red color.

Boötes – The Herdsman

The final major constellation on this list is known as Boötes the Herdsman. This constellation is to the right, or in the westward direction, from Scorpius. It has a kite-like shape to it, with the red star “Arcturus” at its bottom point. My own high school Astronomy teacher taught me a handy phrase: “arc to Arcturus”. This helps me remember to follow an “arc-like” path from Antares westward to find this constellation. Try this out for yourself!

I hope that you have found this article helpful and informative! Now that I’ve acquainted you with some of the constellations of the night skies, it’s time for you to go hunting for them! Soon you will be able to navigate the sky like the back of your hand, with some time and practice of course.

For Additional Information:

  • Charts of the Night Sky – A useful application by Dominic Ford that shows you what your night sky looks like depending upon the time and date. Additionally, this site also allows you to select a plethora of options such as star brightness, the locations of planets, etc.
  • Star Atlas – A much more in-depth and interactive application that allows you to explore the night sky.
  • Star and Planet Locator – Where you can buy your own Star and Planet Locator, a tool that makes it even easier to navigate the night sky.

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