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Under the Night Sky

Posted by John Scarr on
Under the Night Sky
A brief introduction to celestial navigation, constellation identification, and starscape mythology

By: Jules Norcross

Photographer: Bree Spradling  

Growing up in the suburbs of Boston, I thought the stars off of Cape Cod we're absolutely brilliant. When I first got to the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Rocky Mountain program in the small town of Boulder, Wyoming my definition of brilliant changed. It felt like you could count every last star in the entire universe.  
For most of us outdoor women, we've looked up at the night sky somewhere and wondered what exactly is up there. Stargazing is not only a fun hobby, but a useful tool when you're out in the wilderness as well. Navigators, like Christopher Columbus, used the stars to navigate the Atlantic and land on US soil.  
In fact, the US Navy still teaches a course in Celestial Navigation. How many times has your GPS failed? Or Google Maps sent you to the wrong place? We hope our tools never fail when out in the wilderness, but some basic knowledge of the night skies is a great way to insure you can find your way if they do.  Not to mention, you can impress your friends around the campfire when you point out Cassiopeia or tell them the story behind Ursa Major. 


This is the perfect time to start enhancing your knowledge of the night sky as the Perseids meteor shower is right around the corner, peaking in August. While a telescope and binoculars can take your stargazing to the next level the human eye is capable of seeing 2.5 million light-years away. That means with no extra tools to pack, we can start learning about stars, constellations, planets, and even some deep space objects in the Andromeda Galaxy, The Milky Way, and beyond. If you have a little extra space consider bringing a pair of binoculars, a circular star map, or planning ahead by downloading an app to your phone. Constellations are pretty straight forward to identify, and a great way to start orienting yourself to the night sky. 
See Stars 

There are 88 constellations. Some of these are called circumpolar constellations. Circumpolar means the stars in the constellation are circling either the north or south celestial pole. What does this mean for you? These constellations will almost always be able to be viewed in their respective hemisphere. These constellations are a great starting point for stargazing. Seeing them consistently will make them easier to identify and give you a point to orient yourself to as you look for new objects. Additional constellations can be viewed in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere, which ones you can see depends on the season. Circular star maps, Stargazing apps, and websites run by NASA or major observatories will help you determine what you should expect to see in the sky on any given day of the year. 


The United States is entirely in the Northern Hemisphere, so we're going to focus on what you'll be able to see in the US this summer. There are five major circumpolar constellations in the Northern Hemisphere: Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Draco, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Ursa Major is Latin for “the great bear” or “the larger bear.” I bet you already figured out, it's smaller counterpart is Ursa Minor.  Ursa Major is the largest constellation in the Northern Hemisphere. It's brightest stars form the famous Big Dipper, which is one of the most recognizable shapes in the sky. When I have a new stargazer out with me, I'll have them find the Big Dipper, then try to connect the rest of the Ursa Major constellation to orient themselves in the sky. 
In Greek Mythology Ursa Major was created after Zeus had an affair, cheating on his wife Hera with a beautiful nymph named Callisto. Hera turned Callisto into a bear, but only after she had bore Zeus a son. Wandering in the forest one day, Callisto and her son came face to face. Her son drew his spear on the bear. Zeus stepped in and sent them both to the heavens, and those Ursa Major “the larger bear” and Ursa Minor “the smaller bear” were created in the stars. 

Find Constellations 

Once you've found the Ursa Major and the Big Dipper, you can use the constellation and the stars it contains to find more objects in the sky. The edge of the ladle in the Big Dipper are two stars called Dubhe and Merak. These stars point to Polaris, The North Star. Polaris is the tip of the handle on the Little Dipper, found inside Ursa Minor. Now, look between the two dippers. You'll see a trail of stars that run between them and arch around Ursa Minor making a backwards “S” in the sky. This trail of nine stars is Draco, the dragon constellation.  Draco represents the dragon responsible for guarding the gardens of the Hesperides in mythology. This garden bore the famous golden apples. Draco holds deep space objects, including the Spindle and Tadpole galaxies, and the Cat's Eye Nebula. You'll need a telescope to see these. If you don't have one, but are interested in checking out more than just constellations and planets, local observatories often hold events and let you take advantage of their telescopes! It's a great way to get to check out deep space objects without making an investment in a telescope. 


From the head of the dragon, follow the stars straight back and you'll find yourself viewing Cepheus.  Cepheus somewhat resembles a child rudimentary drawing of a house. Cepheus is home to the Garnet Star, one of the largest in our galaxy. Additionally, with a telescope you can view the Fireworks Galaxy, the Iris Nebula and Wizard Nebula.  The Cepheus constellation was named after King Cepheus of Aethiopia, who was the husband of neighboring constellation Cassiopeia. 


Cassiopeia is easily identifiable by its “W” shape.  In Greek mythology Cassiopeia is said to have bragged that she was more beautiful than the sea nymphs, which angered the God Poseidon.  Poseidon demanded Cassiopeia and Cepheus sacrifice their daughter, Andromeda to avoid the God ravaging their lands. Luckily, Perseus rescued Andromeda.  Perseus is best known for slaying Medusa.  According to the legend, Poseidon condemned Cassiopeia to the celestial pole forever. She spends half the year upside down as punishment for her vanity. 

Admire Nature 

While any remote area will have less light pollution and thus more brilliant night skies, the Smithsonian published the eight (8) best places for stargazing in the world.  In the US you can find Cherry Springs State Park in Pennsylvania, which is known for being able to view the Northern Lights as well as their annual amateur stargazing event, Black Forest Star Party in September. In Hawaii, Maunna Kea's 13,796 foot summit is home to the world's largest optical telescope.  For you hunters heading north for some of Canada's big game, take the time to check out Alberta's Jasper National Park or the remote areas of western Nova Scotia, home to the first certified starlight hotel, Trout Point Lodge.  Outside of North America, the Atacama Desert in Chile, Tenerife on the Canary Islands, NambidRand Nature Reserve in Namibia, and Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve in New Zealand also made the list. 


Seek Guidance 

Modern technology has spoiled us. GPS doesn't just give us driving directions anymore. Hiking apps put trail maps in the palm of our hands, GPS locators make it easy to find tree stands or blinds in unknown territory, compasses are now iPhone and Android apps. But we all know, technology can fail. After incidents of Naval ships running aground due to electronics failing, the US Navy brought back it's Celestial Navigation course as a requirement for Officers. The Navy felt Officers should be able to safely navigate their ships in the event technology failed. Likewise, some basic knowledge of celestial navigation is a great way to insure even when your GPS fails, you can determine where you are.  


Polaris, the North Star, is the brightest star in the Northern Hemisphere. It doesn't move in the sky, so it will always help you find north. Once you've found Polaris, a quadrant or sextant can help determine the angle between Polaris and the horizon. This gives you your current latitude. If you're in a pickle, stack your fists hand over hand to get an approximate latitude. Your fist is approximately 10 degrees.  Orion, the constellation known for his 3 star belt can help you find south.  From the middle star of the belt, look for two stars hanging down. These represent his sword and point South. Lost at night? Find a bright star and drive a stick into the ground so the star is lined up with the top of the stick. Find a second stick and repeat the same process, with the same star, approximately a yard apart. Wait for the star to move out of alignment with the sticks. Since the night sky rotates east to west, if the star rose you're facing east, if it sank you're facing west. If the star moved to the left of the sticks, you're facing north, likewise if it moved right, you're facing south. 


With modern technology at our finger tips, apps allow us to bring a cheat sheet to help identify constellations, stars, planets, and other objects in the night sky. Most apps offer an augmented reality view of what's in the sky. My personal favorite is StarView, which offers both a free and paid version. Two of my favorite features of this app are the night “infrared” option, and the time travel feature.  The night vision uses red light instead of full color to help keep your eyes acclimated to the dark, so if you're actively trying to identify the constellations in the sky you don't need to wait for your eyes to adjust.  The time travel feature allows you to change the date to the future and the past and view the night sky on that date and time. It's fun to look at birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, etc.  The NightSky app is popular for its compatibility with the Apple Watch.  For those interested in the history and mythology behind objects, Sky Safari is the app for you.  Cosmic Watch is created with some of the best graphics. Star Walk 2 is similar to Sky Safari for Android users.  Of course, don't forget about NASA's app which offers news, current missions, and other happenings in the night sky. 


Read more of our stories in Issue 18 of Lake and Company.

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