If you don’t mind stepping outside on a crisp winter night, it’s the perfect time to turn your eyes skyward. With less ambient light and no humidity, the stars and constellations (and the cold air) will take your breath away.
The first thing to do is move away from any house or street lights to orient yourself. With arms outstretched, point your right hand toward sunrise and your left toward sunset–thus you’ll now face north with the east to your right and west to your left. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, your backside should face south.
Now, if you were an Ancient Greek or Roman, you’d look at the stars above and draw elaborate pictures in the sky to represent the gods and goddesses you knew so well. But you aren’t. Nor am I.
Book of February
Instead, I connect the dots in a manner learned from H. A. Rey, author of the Curious George series (think Man with the Yellow Hat). Mr. Rey also wrote The Stars: A New Way to See Them, which guides us amateur stargazers in how to look at the constellations in a graphic way that shows the shapes implied by the name.
Almost everyone recognizes the Big Dipper, the seven stars that form a large scoop–or dipper. The curved handle is created by three stars while four others form the bowl. Though we may think of the Big Dipper as a constellation, it is actually an asterism or group of stars within a constellation. In this case, the asterism is within Ursa Major, the Great Bear constellation. The tip of the dipper serves as Great Bear’s nose and the bowl forms part of his back–like a bicycle saddle bag. If you follow Rey’s diagram, you’ll see the rest of the side view, including the bear’s front and back legs and paws, plus his rump.
With Rey’s help, you can use the pointer stars in the Big Dipper to locate Polaris, the North Star, and then navigate your way around the night sky to other constellations. It’s a fun journey to take, especially when the sky is clear and wind calm.
Other winter favorites include Orion the Hunter and Gemini the Twins.
An easy way to locate Orion is to first find the three bright stars lined up that create his belt. Do you see his sword dangling from the belt? He’s the heavily armed guy that dominates the sky right now with one arm raised high and holding a club, while the other extends forward and grasps a shield. The constellation includes the brightest star–Betelgeuse (pronounced beetle juice), which marks his left shoulder (leading to the club in his hand).
Above Orion stand the Twins or Gemini (to the south), who remind me of the stick figures I used to draw in elementary school (and beyond). Their heads are the bright stars–Castor and Pollux. I love how they stand side-by-side, holding hands.
There’s so much more to see and I like the simplicity Rey has taught me to find my way about the night sky. Yeah, you can hold your phone up and use an app, but that takes the fun out of it.
Go ahead, treat yourself to Rey’s The Stars and turn your eyes to the sky.
I found my copy of The Stars: A New Way to See Them at Bridgton Books. Where did you find yours? (I hope you’ll join me in supporting local independent bookstores whenever possible.)
The Stars: A New Way to See Them by H.A. Rey, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008 (with update on the solar system and our planets), originally published in 1954.