How to find the north using Polaris, and the most famous star constalletions, and how to teach your children.
Planning a night of stargazing with your kids when you don’t know how to orientate yourself in the night sky can be frustrating. How to find constellations? how to stimulate your kids curiosity, and inspire them? This article is a good starting point for both you and your kids- “How to find the north” is the basic question in stargazing, and it’s explained here step by step. Stick with me!
Orientation. The ability to know every moment exactly where you are looking at the sky, is super important. Actually, stargazing is based on the assumption that you’ll know to navigate from one point in the sky to another – this ability require a good memory, and a deep familiarity with the night sky.
For people who living above the equator, there is a very important anchor in the night sky- the north star, or “polaris”. Knowing where Polaris is located is critical for finding other stars constellations, and more objects in the sky. Finding Polaris is actually the first lesson of both naked eye observation, as well as armed observation.
Why this particular star, unlike many other stars, is so important and useful for stargazing?
We have 2 reasons –
- It points to the north.
- It always at the same place.
Yes, the stars are moving. In fact, the stars aren’t actually moving, but Earth does moves, and it’s enough to create an illusion of moving stars – very similar to the reason why in the past people thought that the Sun and the moon are moving.
So why Polaris isn’t moving? Why is he so special?
Imagine that a big skewer goes through Earth. The penetration point of the skewer is the southern pole, and the exit point of the skewer is the northern pole. Earth is spinning around itself
Now imagine a person standing on Earth and looking above his head, toward the sky. It’s easy to notice that when he standing on the equator, his view always changes during the rotation, and he sees different stars.When he Is standing near one of the poles, his rotation type is more similar to carousel rotation. From his current point of view, the pole will always be in his field of view.
Now imagine that there is a star right above the northern pole – actually, you don’t need to imagine, this star is already exists, and it called Polaris, drive from the root “pole”.
Every observation that’s been done between the equator and the northern pole consists Polaris in the field of view. The more the observation is close to the pole, the higher that Polaris is located in the sky. When the observer is standing on the north pole, Polaris will be right above his head.
Now when we know how things work, the question that remains is, how can we find Polaris?
Not so fast, there is few basic things you must know first…
Starting stargazing First, you want to rich the darker place you know, without going to far of course. Find a good spot outside the city – surounded by hills to block the light of the city.
The weather is also important – follow the weather forecast to predict the amount of clouds and air pollution – The more the sky are clear – the better.
Sky maps – 10 years back, maps were compulsory, but the technology evolved and now we can use many other tools, for free:
Sky map app (Google play)
In spite of the progress of the technology during the last years, there is one undigital product that can make the difference between successful stargazing to frustration.
Minzhao lasers emerald green v2
The green laser will help you to point the sky and ease the stargazing with your kids. Honestly, this is the only product you really need.
Ursa major and Cassiopeia.
As like as stargazer using Polaris to find stars constellations, it can be done in the opposite direction – If we familiar enough with prominent stars constellations, it’s pretty easy to find Polaris, following the next instructions:
Ursa major is a very big stars constellation in the northern sky. The name “Ursa” means “Bear”, but in a common light pollution, it’s very hard to identity the whole constellation, so it seems more like a shopping cart.
Let’s focus on the two stars in the right. If we’ll draw a line between them, and then multiple this line 5 times towards up, we would hit Polaris.
By the way, Polaris itself is taking a part in the stars constellation “Ursa minor”, as the end of her tail.
Cassiopeia is also an well-known constellation in the northern sky. It’s a very noticeable constellation, looking like the letter W or M (depending on how you looking at it). When we looking at Cassiopeia as a W latter, we expect to see Polaris as the brighter star above it.
If our location is northern enough, we will always view Ursa major and Cassiopeia together in the night sky – and Polaris between them. When the observation location get closer and closer to the equator, one of those constellations is likely to be hidden beneath the horizon, thus, we need to use some imagination in order to predict it’s location.
The method of using Ursa major and Cassiopeia in order to find Polaris, is the most widespread one, and the most easy one too.
How to teach your kids?
Find a suitable evening with comfortable weather and dark sky. The stars in those constellations are bright enough to be seen also from the middle of a big city, though it always better to get far from light pollution as possible. Use a stars map, and a laser (In order to point easily wherever you want in the sky), and follow the instructions above.
If you’ll wait enough, letting Earth spin a little bit around itself, it would be easy to notice the stars constellations changing their places around Polaris during the rotation. This practice is super recommended for understanding the uniqueness of Polaris.
The impatient average reader will leave the article right now. Do not. Although this method is the simplest one, and the most accurate either, sometimes it wouldn’t be efficient. If clouds are coming from north, or even if you spending time southern to the equator, you wouldn’t be able to view Polaris at all.
I’ve lived my whole life in Israel, northern to the equator, so Im completely unfamiliar with the southern sky. But there is one single constellation that’s tends to appear above the equator, bringing also a good Greek mythology story as a bonus.
According to the Greek mythology, Artemis sent the scorpion to kill Orion since he used to claim that
he’s the best hunter in the world. The scorpion indeed killed Orion, and Zeus decided to perpetuate his memory, so he placed him in the sky. Artemis choose to make the same tribute for the scorpion, and Zeus let her, but with one condition – they’ll never meet in the sky. And indeed, they never appearing together in the sky. Northern to the equator, the scorpion is dominate during the summer, and Orion during the winter season.
So how do we find the scorpion and which indication does it gives to us?
First, the scorpion constellation is always located in the south. When we identify scorpion we actually identify the general direction of the south, and if we know where is the south then we can understand easily where is the north.
What I personally love most about the scorpion, is the strong imagination to a real scorpion, unlike many stars constellations Greek mythology based ( For example, Canis Minor is Orion’s dog, and it composed of two stars and a line between them).
The brightest star at scorpion is Antares – a red giant, and one of the 20 most brightest stars in the sky.
How to teach your kids?
The constellation is very big and noticeable, and therefore, it’s a very good anchor, especially for kids. If you’re living northern to the equator, don’t get confused if you can’t find the scorpion. As I said, above the horizon, the scorpion is visible only during the summer, for few hours every night. When you get through finding the scorpion, you can practice the principles of the compass rose, and find the north! ( I felt that it was completely irrelevant to mention to tell your kids the myth behind the constellation).
This should be enough for now – there is plenty of ways to orientate in the sky, but those are the most easy, efficient, interesting and educational ones. Go out, far as you can, take your kids with you, enjoy.