Table of Contents:
- Using the Star Chart
- Stargazing and Navigation
- Light Pollution
- Star Legends
Our Night Sky is a remarkable sight. We have always looked up at other planets, stars, and galaxies. The beauty of the heavens has the power to direct the lost, entertain the bored, and intrigue the curious.
Using the Star Chart:
To orient yourself with the stars, face north and rotate the chart until the current season shows at the bottom. The constellations at the bottom of the chart will be in the northern sky. Keep in mind that this map depicts the night at midnight. As the night progresses, the stars will appear to rotate counter-clockwise due to the rotation of the earth.
Stargazing and Navigation:
If you are in an area with low levels of light pollution, it is relatively easy to use the stars to navigate. The best places to stargaze are located outside of cities. In Missouri we suggest somewhere between Ironton and Fredrickton, in Southeastern Missouri. This will bring you far enough away from St. Louis, Nashville, Columbia, and Springfield to enjoy the view without interference from light pollution.
To Find North (Using the North Star Polaris):
- Identify the Big Dipper.
- Use the two pointer stars (not connected to handle of the dipper) to measure 5 lengths pointing directly to the north star. Each length is equal to the distance between the two pointer stars.
*It is important to find the North Star because will always point towards the North Pole in the northern hemisphere. You will always know your direction if you can find Polaris.
*Additionally, wherever you are in the northern hemisphere, the North Star will be the same angle above the horizon as your latitude. This can be measured accurately using a sextant, but an estimate can be made using an outstretched fist. We are all different shapes and sizes, but we share proportions. An outstretched fist makes an angle of close to 10 degrees for most people.
If you want to be more precise, a guide to making your own sextant can be found here: https://www.warmuseum.ca/cwm
To Find East/West (Using Orion):
- The constellation Orion rises in the east and sets in the west. Orion’s belt, the only three bright stars that form a short straight line in the whole night sky rise very close to due east and set very close to due west. If you want to be more accurate, the first star in the belt to rise and set, called Mintaka, will always rise and set within one degree of true east and west wherever you are in the world.
Just going out and looking at the stars is already a pleasureable and rewarding experience, but several times a year, astronomical occurances make stargazing an even more fascinating opportunity. Below is an outline of some of these events in the next year.
If you plan on stargazing, make sure you check the weather in advance, and bring whatever you’ll need to stay warm and comfortable while waiting for the meteors to appear.
The Quarantid Meteor Shower
- A meteor shower occurs when the earth passes through a series of particles during its annual orbit, causing a number meteors to be visible without advanced equiptment. In January 2016, the Quarantid Meteor Shower will be visible, peaking around January 4th. In order to see the Quarantid meteor shower will be visible under normal circumstances: all that is needed is a good stargazing spot, without too much light pollution (see article below).
The Eta Aquarid Meteor Shower
- The next meteor shower that will be easily visible to un-equipped stargazers will occur on May 5th with the Eta Aquarid meteor shower (although other meteor showers will occur between January and May, most of them will be more difficult to see because of a bright moon. Luckily, the Eta Aquarids occur on a night of a new moon). The Eta Aquarid meteor shower is caused by debris coming from the famous Comet Halley. Although the comet will not be visible from earth until 2016, we will pass through its trail not once this year but twice! In order to find the Eta Aquarid meteor shower, find the comet Aquarius (see section above), from which the meteor shower will seem to appear. DateandTime.com recommends veiwers in St. Louis and surrounding areas go out from 3-5 A.M. on Friday, May 5th for optimal veiwing.
The Orionid Meteor Shower
- We pass through Halley’s trail again every October, which is the cause of the Orionid meteor shower. Although the meteors will be visible from October 2nd to November 7th, but two especially good times will be around October 21st, at the peak of the shower and a quarter moon, and October 7th, when the Draconid meteor shower will also be peaking. The Orionids earn their name from the constellation Orion, from which the meteors appear to originate. See the above section for tips on how to find Orion.
In 2016, some major meteor showers such as the Lyrids in April and the Perseids in August, will be obscured by full or gibbous moons. However, in 2017 and later years, the timing of the meteor showers and moon phases will sync up differently, so keep an eye on websites such as DateandTime.com (link below) for updates.
For more information on these and more meteor showers, or to check times for other locations, check out DateandTime.com’s meteor shower page, which is where we got our information for this section. Additionally, a lunar calendar such as the one on Calendar-12.com can be helpful in terms of finding a good night to stargaze, since a full moon can outshine stars and make it difficult to see less bright celestial objects.
In our modern society, stars do not play a vital role. This may be due to our issues with light pollution that makes most immune to the powers of the constelations.
Above is a map of the light pollution in the state of Missouri (Source- http://www.lightpollutionmap.info/#zoom=6&lat=4618808.04192&lon=-10129618.74202&layers=B0TFFFTT):
The map is indicative of how bad our current state of light pollution is. If you would like to find the light pollution in your local area a good reference can be found at: http://www.lightpollutionmap.info
Additionally, light pollution is a large factor affecting climate change and normal environmental behavior. In an average year in the U.S., outdoor lighting uses around 120 terawatt-hours of energy, mostly to illuminate streets and parking lots. That’s enough energy to meet New York City’s total electricity needs for 2 years. Unfortunately, at least 30% of that light is wasted. That adds up to $3.3 billion and the release of 21 million tons of CO2 per year! 875 million trees would have to be planted annually in order to offset all that CO2.
Furthermore, plants depend on the natural cycle of day and night. Artificial light at night can throw off a plant’s response to the change of seasons. Prolonged exposure to artificial light prevents many trees from adjusting to seasonal variations. This, in turn, has implications for the wildlife that depend on trees for their natural habitat. Also, artificial lights can disrupt the migratory schedules of birds causing them to leave too early or too late in the season, missing ideal conditions for nesting. Birds that navigate by moonlight and starlight can wander off course. Millions die every year by colliding into needlessly illuminated buildings.
Most of the constellations that we know come from Greek Mythology, and when we refer to them, we refer to them by those names. For instance, one can point out Orion, the hunter and compaion of the goddess Artemis, or Casseiopeia, who boasted that her daughter was more beautiful than the Nereids and was punished for doing so.
However, there are stories about the constellations from all over the world. For instance, the Arapaho tribe in Kansas and Colorado have a story about Splinter-Foot Girl, who was born from the wounded leg of a hunter. After evading several would-be suitors, she escaped with her family of hunters to become the constellation we recognize as the Pleiades.
The Pleiades Cluster, Image: Sylvain Billot [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Another local legend, from the Cherokee tribe of Tennessee is that of the two dogs, which make up the constellation we call Canis Major. The story says that these two guard the path to the land of souls (The Milky Way), and that you must bring food for both of them if you want to pass.
The Two Dogs are shown here as Sirius and Canis Major β
Finally, the Pawnee of the Great Plains are considered some of the best astronomers of the Native Americans. They had a complex star system, around which they focused their calendar and religion. Four bright stars in each semi-cardinal corner of the sky (NW, SW, SE, and NE) were said to hold up the sky, according to their creation myth.
A printable PDF of the card is available: /files/pages/imce/consultant/star_chart_final_0.pdf
Finding Constellations Mentioned in This Article:
Note: the position of most constellations changes with the seasons.
The Big Dipper:
- Approximate north
- The big dipper is shaped like it’s namesake, and composed of four stars making a “bowl” and three stars forming a crooked handle
- Orion’s three-star belt is one of the most easily-identified constellations
- From there, his shoulders and feet can be seen easily, even in urban areas
- Following Orion’s belt in a straight line towards his “feet” (down and to the left), one can see Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky
- Sirius’ nickname is the Dog Star, so think of a hunting dog following the heels of Orion, who was a famous hunter in Greek mythology
Aquarius (for the Eta Aquarid meteor shower);
- Aquarius occurs in the area of the sky sometimes referred to as “the Sea” because it is a very dark region of the sky, with few bright stars
- In the the northern hemisphere, find Aquarius by locating the brightest star in the dark Southern sky, and travelling upward to find a crooked oval shape. This is Aquarius.
The Pleiades (Splinter-Foot Girl):
- Find Orion
- Follow Orion’s belt upwards (away from Sirius) to find Aldebaran, the brightest star in the Taurus constellation
- From Aldebaran, continue in the same direction until you see a small misty clump of stars. This is the star cluster of the Pleiades, also known as the Seven Sisters
Sirius and Canis Major β (the Two Dogs):
- Find Sirius from Orion
- Sirius is the “nose” of the constellation Canis Major
Canis Major β is directly to the right of Sirius
Created with help from http://earthsky.org/
Yonatan, David, Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri’s Natural Heritage 2014
Dalzell, Eva, Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri’s Natural Heritage 2015