Starry, Starry Night
While most of us can pick out the tried and true stars of the Big Dipper, the rest of the night sky can be a mystery. But with some guidance,
practice and perhaps a little technology, you can learn the ways of the
constellations that swirl overhead.
The good news is that Duluth has some great conditions to stargaze and pick out collections of stars. While the brightness of the Twin Cities can overpower a constellation, sometimes the countryside is too much of a good thing. A very dark location reveals thousands of the estimated 100 billion to 1 trillion of the stars in our galaxy, so it's tough to connect the dots of individual constellations.
UMD student and planetarium worker Lindsey Meuwissen, 22, says that an area
with some light pollution is actually desirable. "If you're next to the lake, looking out over the lake is usually pretty good for seeing constellations."
North circumpolar constellations
While the Zodiac constellations slowly sweep across the sky and dip below our sightline with the passing of the year, the north circumpolar constellations are always visible to us from our northern latitude on Earth. These groups of stars rotate around the north celestial pole in a counterclockwise direction and include Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Cassiopeia, Cepheus and Draco. Of these constellations, the most recognizable isn't even a true constellation, but rather a group of stars within a onstellation: the Big Dipper of Ursa Major.
What makes it pop from the busy night sky are the four bright stars that form a "cup." Three additional stars trailing out from behind form its "handle."
By finding the two end stars of the Big Dipper's cup section and drawing a line from them in the direction the cup opens leads you right to Polaris, the North Star. This star, a mainstay of travelers before modern navigation, will always show you true north. It isn't much brighter than the stars in the Big Dipper, though it is the brightest star in Ursa Minor, which contains the Little Dipper.
Alright, now that you're orientated, you can start looking for the lesser known stars. But let's be frank - no one is going to look up and recognize the shape of animals of the Zodiac. Their representation is far more symbolic than literal. It makes one wonder if ancient Grecians actually ever saw a lion or a fish, given the patterns of their constellations. But don't despair.
"Using a star map helps," says Ehren Inkel, 23, a recent UMD graduate and a presenter at the planetarium. Although there are several computer programs out there, Inkel recommends "Stellarium." "You can download it for free and then set it to the current time or advance it to later that night or even different months of the year." The program has lots of
interactive features; however, a useful map can easily be printed from skymaps.com showing what's up for the current month.
But, as you might have guessed, there's an app for that. Yes, iPhone and other smartphones have applications that use the device's internal compass to display the exact portion of the sky you are pointing at. It's like a handheld planetarium for around $12.
Whatever guide you use, here's a tip that both planetarium workers made: everything is a lot more spread out in the night sky than whatever map you're using. "It takes a while to grasp the scale of things, even for me and I pick out constellations here at the planetarium all the time," says Meuwissen. If you just can't seem to find a pattern of stars, think big and expand the field of night sky you're searching.
The King and Queen of the Night Sky
Let's start back at those stars along the upturned cup of the Big Dipper.
Trace a line as before from the front of the Big Dipper cup to the North Star, then keep going an equal distance beyond. You should find a "W" or "M" emblazoned in the sky. In the winter, they line up in a "M" pattern, but in the summer look for an "W" and you've found Cassiopeia. As Queen of
Aethiopia, the shape represents her crown.
To find her husband, continue past the North Star then continue about a third of that distance to the star of gamma Cephei - part of the constellation Cepheus. It marks the tip of the king's "dunce cap" which he wears in perpetuity as a punishment for his wife for provoking the gods.
Ditty with the Stars
When at UMD's planetarium, I was taught a few mnemonic devices to find my way around the night sky. "Arc to Arcturus," says Inkel, who traced out the handle of the Big Dipper and continued the arc down to the bright star of Arcturus of Boötes the Herder. It is one of the brightest stars in the sky and gives off a yellow or slightly blue color.
From there you're ready for the second part of the saying, "Speed to Spica." Using that same arc, continue past Arcturus for approximately equal distance onto the star of Spica. It's also a bright star giving off a bluish hue in the constellation of Virgo.
Now you've found a constellation from the Zodiac, which refers to 12 of the 13 constellations the Sun passes through. And just as an aside, this is where astronomy bumps into astrology. Your astrological sign is based on where the sun was when you were born. However, this system was set up 2,000 years ago and since then the sun passes through Zodiac signs
on a slightly different schedule than before. (According to where the sun was on my birthday it turns out I'm not actually a Leo, but rather a Cancer. Go figure.)
Another interesting feature of the present sky is the Summer Triangle made up from three of the brightest stars of the summer sky: Vega, from the Lyra constellation; Deneb from Cygnus the Swan; and Altair from Aquila the Eagle. Together they form a nifty kite-like shape, which is said to be
the path of the gods.
To find the path, go back to the Big Dipper's cup and, from the approximate center of it, trace above to the bright star of Deneb. Vega will be just over from Deneb with Altair below and between the two. Inside the summer triangle is a portion of the Milky Way Galaxy.
Astronomy in the Northland
The University of Wisconsin Superior and UMD have both had observatories in the past, but neither is operational at this time. However, UMD continues to operate the Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium with free shows every Wednesday and Friday evenings at 7 p.m.
If you're looking for further involvement, try the Arrowhead Astronomical Society of Duluth. They hold meetings at the planetarium on the second Wednesday of every month at 8:00 pm, right after to show. They talk about
current happenings in the night sky and freely offer advice to newbies. People of all levels are welcome to attend.
Another way to learn more about our local night sky is by going to the group's website, www.duluthaas.com. There a link is provided for the local blog, Astro Bob, written by Bob King of the Duluth News Tribune. He can keep you up-to-date about the happenings of Duluth's biggest night show.