A Beginner’s Guide to Reading the Stars

After 15 years of exploring Vancouver Island I can stand on a peak and name most of the mountains lining the horizon. I learned them because it felt important to me to know my neighborhood, to place myself within my geography, to answer my own question “which peak is that?” I did it slowly, a few peaks at a time, and now I can identitfy 50 or 60 on sight.

I wish I could say the same about the overhead geography. But when the sun goes down and the stars begin crystallizing out of the dark blue ether of dusk I get lost. It might be that the three dimensions, dynamism, and vastness of the universe is harder to wrap my mind around. However, I think it is more that I haven’t tried hard enough. Derek Kief, an astronomer at the H.R. Macmillan Space Centre in Vancouver, agrees with that sentiment.

“It’s like when you move to a new neighborhood,” he says. “You don’t really know it until you’ve walked it. Once you start looking at the night sky regularly you’re going to start recognizing things and really understanding what’s up there.”

There’s an app for that, of course, but the beauty of camping is getting off the grid, out of cell service, and away from our devices. Besides, no one is going to be impressed by your ability to use an iPhone.

This summer I made it my goal to expand my knowledge beyond the dippers, the Milky Way and the North Star. Kief gave me the directions to a few planets, stars and constellations to get me started. These are easy-to-find objects, even from a city park. Get away from the city lights and they become easier to spot and part of a bigger show.

Here is a quick introduction to some stars, planets and constellations that are relatively easy to pick out. The precise location will change depending where on the planet you are. This guide is for North America.

Photo: Vincent James

Start with the Big Dipper. It’s your starting point to the map to the universe. Look high in the northern sky for a gently arcing line of three stars connected to a shallow pan.

Follow the path of the two stars that make up the far edge of the Big Dipper’s pan up to the first bright star. This is Polaris, the North Star, sitting high in the north sky. It is also the last star in the handle of the Little Dipper. Face it and no matter where you are in the northern hemisphere, you’re always looking due north, which is why Polaris has always been important for navigation.

Big Dipper over Mount Rushmore. Arcturus is in the bottom left; Polaris is in the upper right.
Big Dipper over Mount Rushmore. Arcturus is in the bottom left; Polaris is in the upper right. Photo: Wally Patroika

Arc to Arcturus
Back at the Big Dipper, follow the curving path of the handle away from the pan and arc to Arcturus, one of the brightest stars in the sky. Arcturus was also key to celestial navigation, helping Polynesians explore the Pacific and reach Hawaii.

The Big Dipper is in the top of this frame; Arcturus is the bright star just left of center; Spica is blue in this photo and bottom-center. Photo: Sjensen

Spike to Spica
Follow the same curving path you took from the Big Dipper to Arcturus and continue until you’re close to the southwest horizon and the next bright star. This is Spica. Often mistaken for a UFO, you’ll know it because it flashes red and blue. That’s because it’s actually two stars–a red and a blue one–sitting so close together they’re indistinguishable and the light color blinks between them.

Photo: Sjensen

Find the lion
Probably the easiest constellation of the Zodiak to link is Leo, the lion-shaped group of stars in the western sky. Back at the Big Dipper, pop a hole in the pan. The water would land on Leo’s back. Move away from the bottom of the pan and look for a backward “?” or a sickle shape. This group of bright stars is the lion’s head and mane. His hind end is a triangle of stars.

Summer Triangle
Forget the Big Dipper for a minute and turn around. The Summer Triangle is an easy one to spot in the southern sky. Connect the three brightest stars in a great big triangle.

Jupiter and Venus in conjuction
Jupiter and Venus in conjunction. Photo: Tim Credner

The Planets
Planets are easy to spot. They’re usually the brightest objects in the sky, often colored and because they’re closer the light they reflect is steady, while a star’s twinkles. This summer Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars are all visible roughly following each other in an arc across the southern sky. Venus and Jupiter will appear first. Jupiter and Saturn range from orange to yellow. Venus is whiter. Mars is slightly red. With binoculars or a telescope you can pick out the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter. And toward the end of August, Venus and Jupiter will move into conjunction, a fancy astronomy term for hanging out close together.

Top photo: Jamison McAndie



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