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How Do You Find Constellations?

Updated on September 4, 2012
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How do you find constellations? On clear nights, looking up at the stars is an enjoyable activity. But, if you’re unable to remember your basic astronomy from your school days, it can be hard to know what, if any, constellations, you’re viewing. Here are a few simple methods for finding constellations in the night sky.

Introduction to Constellations

Constellations are basically patterns seen in the formations of stars in the night sky, or imaginary pictures formed by drawing imaginary lines between stars. The art of finding and charting constellations dates back to ancient times. In fact, 48 of the 88 constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) were first charted by the ancient scientist Ptolemy. In addition to the standard constellations recognized by the international scientific community, there are numerous other historical constellations recognized by the numerology community and various regional communities.

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Identifying Constellations with Star Charts

One of the most basic ways to find and identify constellations in the night sky is by using star charts. Star charts are, at their most basic form, paper maps of the sky.

1. Selecting a star chart. The proper star chart to use is determined by the season and the geographical location of the stargazer. The sky will obviously differ in appearance based on those items, as the earth rotates on its axis around the sun. Star charts of each of the 88 constellations recognized by the IAU are available for downloading on its website. And other website, skymaps.com, has star charts available for download for each month of year, showcasing the most prominent constellations visible each month.

2. Position yourself. Like most maps, star charts are oriented by cardinal directions (north, south, east, west). Position yourself facing whichever cardinal direction is indicated in order to read the chart correctly.

3. Find a constellation. Once you’ve positioned yourself, simply choose a constellation from your chart, and pinpoint it based on the cardinal directions.

Applications for Viewing Constellations

In addition to using physical star charts to locate constellations, there are applications or “apps” available on electronic devices to help identify the formations of stars.

GoSkyWatch Planetarium is a free app available to download for the ipad. It is simple to use. All the user must do is point the ipad at the night sky, and the program does all of the work.

Google Sky Maps is another application that can be downloaded for smart phone systems. It works similarly to the GoSkyWatch Planetarium application for ipad. By utilizing the phone’s GPS system, the application will locate constellations based on the user’s position. All the user must do is point their device at the night sky, and the application does the rest of the work.

Tips for Viewing Constellations

· The darker the night sky, the easier it is to see the stars. Choose a stargazing location away from bright lights, preferably away from the city.

· A telescope is not a requirement for viewing constellations. Some constellations are more visible with the aid of a telescope, but it is not necessary equipment.

· Remember that the earth is moving, so constellations available to be seen will vary with the season.

Star gazing is a wonderful hobby for adults and children alike. It is a great way to spark a passion for the sciences or rekindle an interest. All you need is a little know how and some star charts to get yourself started.

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    • Lee Tea profile image

      Lee Tea 

      6 years ago from Erie, PA

      Google Sky Maps + my telescope = exciting exploration! I took 3 astronomy classes in college, and Sky Maps still shows me more than I remember learning in school - constellations, stars, planets too. Other times, I just like to look up and get lost. Thanks for writing.

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