Where's Orion's belt?

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Monday, October 23, 2006

In the last installment, I outlined the history of the constellations. Now it's time to learn them. Well, at least some of them.

Start with no more than three major constellations per season. In no time at all, you'll know your way around the sky in a general sense. You can fill in smaller and fainter constellations later. Anybody really interested in the sky can learn a dozen patterns.

As I write this, winter is around the corner, so let's start here. Go outside in the early evening and face south. (As an alternate, pick up the January issue of Astronomy and open to the foldout map in the center.) Regarding directions, you're looking south in the daytime when you face the Sun around noon Standard time (that's 1 P.M. Daylight time). About halfway up in the sky, you'll see a figure made of seven stars that looks like a bowtie, butterfly, or hourglass, depending on the brand of wine you drank at supper. (Hey, any of these choices surpasses what the ancient Greeks saw: a hunter with an upraised club and a shield made of a lion's skin.) Look especially for three stars in a line — Orion's “belt.” Find it?

One down, 87 to go.

Now, any time you're out during the next 3 months, take a quick look around and locate Orion. Notice that as winter turns to spring, Orion lies more farther west each night. Eventually, the Sun will overtake its part of the sky, and you'll lose the Hunter in the evening sky until late next fall.

Find two more constellations quickly using Orion's belt. Extend a line upward from the belt, and you'll find a bright orange star — Aldebaran, the brightest star in Taurus the Bull. The Bull's head is a V shape, with Aldebaran as one of that letter's tips.

Next, draw a line down from the belt to find the night sky's brightest star — Sirius. This brilliant gem marks the head of one of Orion's hunting dogs, Canis Major.

In spring, find the Big Dipper first. True, it's not a constellation, so identify the rest of Ursa Major later. Use the Pointer Stars in the Big Dipper's bowl to locate Polaris, the North Star. Then find Leo the Lion and Boötes the Herdsman.

When summer rolls around, find the three bright stars in the Summer Triangle — Vega, Altair, and Deneb. Then identify their constellations: Lyra the Harp contains Vega, Aquila the Eagle houses Altair, and Deneb marks the tail of Cygnus the Swan.

As autumn begins, the Summer Triangle will stand high in the sky, a good locator for the Great Square of Pegasus the Winged Horse. Attached to Pegasus is Andromeda the Princess. Nearby lies Cassiopeia the Queen.

What other tips can I give you to help learn the sky? Well, if you live within a reasonable distance of a planetarium, call and ask when it presents sky shows. During such shows, a lecturer will point out the major constellations and bright stars up that night. Take the current issue of Astronomy with you and — right after the show — use the center map to review the constellations you learned about. If you don't remember every star pattern the show discussed, ask the console operator. He or she definitely will appreciate your interest.

You can attend a public star party put on by a planetarium or, more probably, by an astronomy club. Usually, the pre-observing program will focus on celestial objects to be viewed through telescopes. Sometimes the presenter points out the constellations, sometimes not. If not, wait until the crowd thins, and ask him or her to point out a few constellations. Trust me, they’ll be happy to.

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