Now you know how to find Orion, Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Leo and the Southern Cross (from Your First 5 Constellations), you’re ready to learn your next five! In this day and age, most people rely on apps and maps to find the stars, but there is a lot to be said for learning the stars and star constellations off by heart.
The more constellations you learn the easier it will become to place new constellations and the more pleasure you will get from the night sky. Although you cannot learn the positions of the planets (as they are always moving), you will be able to find them much more easily as well.
If you can find out the name of the constellation (or specific stars) which planets will pass by, you will be able to locate them using your internal star map. Fortunately, this is often how the location of planets is described.
“You will be able to see Mars passing between the pointer stars of Ursa Major in the early evening.”
I made that one up but those are the sorts of instructions you can easily find and use. Okay, it does break my ‘no technology rule’ but for the planets I think we can make an exception. You may get so good at recognizing the planets, you won’t need to rely on the internet. Who wants to be “worldly wise” when you can be “universally awesome”?
This applies to all sorts of astronomical activity. In The Countdown to Spring Equinox 2020, we listed interesting celestial happenings every night this week. Here are the instructions on locating the zodiacal light:
“Spot the beautiful zodiacal light, stretching from Taurus through Aries to Pisces. Be careful not to confuse this with the milky way to the northwest. You can see the zodiacal light from March 11th – 22nd.”
The Milky Way
If you can find any of these three constellations, you will be able to see the zodiacal light.
Knowing the constellations isn’t just fun, it can be really useful. So, let’s crack on!
You didn’t think I would just leave you high and dry, unable to find the zodiacal light (which you can see tonight and until March 22nd)? These three constellations are really easy to learn as a group and they are three of the biggest constellations to learn.
Taurus is the Latin for ‘bull’ and, as with all constellations of the zodiac, their names tell us the shapes of the constellations (though sometimes it takes a stretch of the imagination). It is the star sign for people born between April 20th and May 20th. Taurus is the first of the zodiacs, created in Ancient Mesopotamia. Bulls were sacred in their culture and this reverence for the animal has continued in many cultures and faiths since.
Taurus is a large constellation found in the northern hemisphere in winter. The rest of the year it is hidden behind the sun. To locate it, find Orion (see Your First 5 Constellations) and head south-east. It’s just next door! There is an asterism (sub-group of stars) which make up the bull’s face or a distinctive “K” shape. If you imagine the center of the “K” is the bull’s nose, Orion’s belt points toward the nose. This should give you the bearing you need to find the rest!
Gemini is Latin for ‘twins’. It is the third sign of the zodiac and the star sign for those born between May 21st and June 20th. The sun was located in Gemini for the first day of summer but, in 1990, the sun shifted into Taurus where it will remain for the next 500 to 600 years.
Gemini is just east of Taurus (above the bull’s head). They’re easy to spot as they look like twins: two stick people holding hands. The constellation contains 85 stars but the twins stand out clearly from the rest. The two brightest stars in the constellation are called Castor and Pollux. They are also the twins from Greek mythology which give the constellation its name.
Aries is Latin for ‘ram’ and it is the star sign for those born between March 21st and April 19th. If you like Greek mythology, you might be interested to know it is the same famous ram from the tale of Jason and the Argonauts. Jason was tasked with getting the ‘golden fleece’ from the ram by King Pelias.
How to find Aries? Here’s a fun and easy trick. Follow the same steps to get to the "nose" of Taurus as before. You start at Orion’s belt and follow its line south east. You should hit Aldebaran (the brightest star in Taurus), part of its nose. You knew that! Then you just carry the line going until you reach the star cluster of Pleiades (also known as the Seven Sisters). Pleiades is still a part of Taurus and, again, just keep the line going in the same direction and you’ll soon hit the next set of stars: Aries! Hamal is the brightest star in Aries and the easiest to spot.
Pisces is the Latin for ‘fish’ and it is the star sign for people born between February 19th and March 20th. According to legend, Aphrodite and her son transformed into Koi fish to escape from Typhon ‘the father of all monsters’. There is debate as to whether we are currently in the Age of Pisces or the Age of Aquarius.
To the east is Aries, the constellation we had just arrived at. We can’t stop now, just two more stops! Making your way westward from Aries, you really can’t miss Pisces. It’s a much bigger constellation than Aries and roughly takes the form of a large “V” shape. The “V” is usually depicted as two bits of string tied to two fish forming at the top of the “V”.
Aquarius is Latin for ‘water carrier’ and it is the star sign for those born between January 20th and February 18th. The zodiac is interpreted slightly different from Babylonian gods and floods, the Egyptians also saw it as a symbol of the River Nile’s annual flood, for Hindu’s it was the same as the Greeks: ‘water pitcher’. There is certainly consensus on its theme of water, however.
Finding this last one is easy peasy. Aquarius is simply the far side of Pisces from Aries. Therefore, you just need to look east from Pisces and the first constellation you meet is Aquarius. I can’t understand how all these different cultures interpreted these stars in such a similar way. To me, it looks a monkey walking on all four legs, or perhaps a tent which is missing a few pegs, but the ‘water bearer’ does not jump out at me!
With one fell swoop, you’ve learnt five big names in the world of constellations. They’re all zodiacs so if you meet anyone with a birthday on any of the above dates, you’ll be able to point out their zodiac. Everyone wants to look at their zodiac, even if they don’t believe in the astrological beliefs that go with it!
Good luck and happy stargazing!