Let the Stars Be Your Guide
I can remember walking around my neighborhood as a child in the fall and winter, looking up at the stars, and I would always notice the constellation Orion. Year after year, he was always there, looking mighty and strong in the night sky, guiding me home as I walked back from spending time at a friend’s house.
Orion is one of the most identifiable constellations in our Northern Hemisphere’s night sky. On a clear night from October to February, if you look up and to the southwest, you can almost always spot the three stars in a line that symbolize his belt. From there, your imagination is always helpful in seeing the rest of the constellation. There are another three fainter stars “hanging down” from his belt that symbolize his sword. Once you’ve identified that area, looking for the two stars above and the two stars below the belt will help you to visualize Orion’s shoulders and knees. Continue to follow out from where his arms would be and you will see stars making an outline of his shield in one hand and a raised club in the other. Once you become familiar with this constellation, it’s hard not to see it! You may also find yourself looking for him in the warmer months to no avail, but eagerly awaiting his return the following fall.
There is another constellation in our winter’s night sky that I have always found fascinating and is fun to look for. It is the cluster of stars known as the Seven Sisters of Pleiades. Once you have learned to locate Orion, draw a straight line out from his belt to the right. You will first pass a group of stars in a V-shape. This is the head of the constellation Taurus the Bull. Continue in the same direction up and to the right and you will come to the Seven Sisters (which is actually supposed to be Taurus’ shoulder). This constellation can be a little tricky to determine exactly how many stars you are looking at in this cluster with the naked eye, adding to its mystery. Rightfully so, as these stars are some 430 light years away!
There are some really interesting stories in Greek mythology that coincide with these constellations. The stories make them even more memorable, or you can create your own story to help act as a personal mnemonic device for remembering their names and places in the night sky. If you want to delve deeper into learning more of our constellations, you may want to use a star chart or stellarscope (a telescope-like device that acts as a handheld planetarium, helping you identify stars at the specific time of year in your region). If you have a smart phone, there are also some great apps – such as Google Sky, Sky Guide and SkyView – that work with your phone’s GPS to help you locate and identify stars and constellations anywhere in the world!
So remember, appreciating nature doesn’t always have to involve animals, plants or other wildlife. And the winter’s clear night sky is the perfect place to ponder the universe and your place in it. After becoming more familiar with some of the constellations, maybe you too will start to rely on the stars to guide your way home.
Doug Stevenson, Naturalist, Glenwood Gardens