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Basic Astronomy Tips

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 0

It has been said that people today have lost their knowledge of the night sky. All through human history, people learned to recognize the patterns in the stars. Because the stars never move in relation to each other, and they appear to form particular shapes such as animals, people are able to learn about stars. This is a small part of the science of astronomy. With the rise in light pollution brought on by the expansion of population growth, it has become very difficult to see all of the star patterns that were obvious in the past. Big cities are the worst for viewing the night sky but even smaller centers make it difficult to learn. Luckily, you can learn to recognize the brightest stars and planets. These are almost always visible from even the largest cities.

Stars don't move in relation to each other, but they do seem to shift their positions in the sky. This is due to the rotation of the earth and the revolution of the earth around the sun. Each day the earth has moved a little further east so a slightly new star field is exposed at sunset. All night long, the earth rotates on its axis. This seems to move the stars westward. Just like the sun, they rise in east and set in the west. You can easily learn to recognize a few stars that is prominent in each of the four seasons.

You should first learn the stars that make up the Big Dipper. (Otherwise known as Ursa Major, the Big Bear.) This is a grouping of stars, called a constellation, that seem to form a large shape of a soup ladle, (a cup with a long curved handle). This constellation is visible in the north. It is always visible on clear nights to those who live in the northern hemisphere. In the spring, the cup of the dipper is upright at sunset and the handle curves away to the east. At sunrise in the spring, the cup is sideways with the handle curving away to the south. This is the same orientation that the Big Dipper has at sunset in the summer. It's flipped over in the fall with the handle pointing to the west. Practice locating the Big Dipper first. You may already have known about this constellation, but it is important. When you can recognize it, you can then use it to find many other constellations in the night sky.

The two stars at the leading edge of the Big Dipper cup give a visual guide to the North Star. Imagine a line running through these stars and extending away from the dipper. This line runs to the North Star. The North Star is not an exceptionally bright star but it is a very important marker, as it has been for millenia. Unlike all other stars in our night sky, the North Star does not appear to move. (Astronomers have discovered, however, that it does move but it is imperceptible to the naked eye.) The North Star marks the end of the ladle handle for the Little Dipper. (Otherwise known as Ursa Minor, the Little Bear.) The Little Dipper handle leads away from the North Star and terminates in a rough square shaped like the cup. Like the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper rotates in the night sky. In fact all constellations rotate around the North Star. Unfortunately, the stars of the Little Dipper are rather dim. You may need quite a dark, clear night sky to see this constellation well. Keep it in mind for the next time you are out in the country.

In the winter, the constellation Orion is very prominent. The stars of this constellation form the outline of a hunter. Orion has been referred to as the hunter since ancient times. It is also marked by three stars that form Orion's Belt. They are the closest stars of their brightness in the night sky. The belt forms an asterism in the sky. An asterism is a pattern of stars that is not an actual constellation. Orion is easily viewed at sunset rising in the east starting about December 1 of each year. It rises in the east at midnight on about October 15 each year. Three bright stars represent a sword dropping below Orions Belt and four bright stars form the body of the constellation. The center of the sword is not actually made up of a star, but the Orion Nebula. This is an area of illuminated dust and gas. It is one of only a few such features that are recognizable with the naked eye. The Orion constellation contains two very interesting stars, Rigel and Betelgeuse, (pronounced "Beetle Juice" or more correctly "Betel Guys"). These are two of the brightest stars in the sky. Rigel is bright white while Betelgeuse is a deep red. Both are giant stars which are possible supernova candidates. This is the term for a stellar explosion resulting from the collapse of the star. To the west of Orion is Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. A line extending from the Orion's Belt stars leads to Sirius. Extending the opposite direction, this line would lead to the bright star Aldebaran in the Taurus constellation.

To the west of Aldebaran and the Taurus constellation, the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, open star cluster can be seen. This is a close grouping of bright blue colored stars. These stars have been famous around the world since ancient times. The earliest reference to the Pleiades dates about 3600 years old. Due to the gas and dust in the group, there is a nebulosity effect to the constellation. The constellation is known as Subaru in Japan and was the namesake of an automotive company that originated there.

With a little practice and some better sky viewing conditions, you can learn some of the constellations. This was an important skill in ancient times and was still useful perhaps a hundred years ago. The rising of certain stars, such as Sirius, the brightest in the sky, signified particular seasons. The ancient people used these as date markers and started their planting or harvesting activities based on them. While this is obviously less important today, gaining some knowledge about stars and astronomy is quite easy and fun. The night sky is filled with endless variety if you just look at it.



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