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A Beginner’s Guide to the Stars

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A Beginner’s Guide to the Stars

Become a star gazer! Try and spot these constellations, visible this summer in the Northern hemisphere.

-Start with the Big Dipper (part of the constellation Ursa Major). Face north, and look for the ladle. The handle is made of three stars, and the bowl has four that form a square. The two stars on the side of the bowl not attached to the handle are called the Pointer Stars and point straight towards Polaris, the North Star.

-Polaris is the tip of Little Dipper’s handle. The Little Dipper (part of Ursa Minor) looks like it pours into the big dipper. This constellation is only visible on a clear night, but you can usually see the two stars at the end of the ladle.

-Ursa Major (Big Bear) and Ursa Minor (little bear) are named for a story in Greek mythology, where Zeus, the king of the gods, fell in love with a woman named Callisto. His jealous wife Hera turned Callisto into a bear. One day, Callisto saw her son, Arcas in the forest, but he did not know the bear was his mother and tried to shoot her. Zeus stopped him by turning him into a bear as well. He grabbed both bears by their tails and swung them into the sky, creating Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. The dippers’ long handles are the bears’ stretched out tails!

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-Draco the dragon snakes between the dippers in a long, S-shaped line of stars, ending with a diamond for a head. One story says that he failed to guard the golden apples of Hesperides that Hercules stole. Now Draco is a circumpolar constellation that never sets, because Hera set him in the sky as punishment, making sure he would guard the sky forever without rest.

-Follow the arc of the Big Dipper’s handle and you will see it points directly to Arcturus, which is often mistaken for the North Star because of its brightness. Arcturus makes the point of the diamond shaped constellation, Boötes, who is known as the herdsman or the ploughman (the Big Dipper can be his plough). He is also said to guard Ursa Major–the name Arcturus actually means “bear guard.”

-East of Boötes and almost directly overhead is a very small C-shaped constellation called Corona Borealis. On the other side of Corona Borealis is the hero Hercules, son of Zeus. His torso is a box made of four stars, and his limbs stick out from each corner, but the stars are somewhat dim, so you’ll need to be far away from city lights to see it.

-Look to the Southeast for a constellation that resembles a teapot or a crab. This is Sagittarius, the archer. He was a centaur–half-man, half horse–that Hercules killed.

-Turn East to see three bright stars (Vega, Altair, and Deneb) that form the Summer Triangle. Deneb, the north most of the three, is at the tail of the constellation Cygnus, the swan that Hercules hunted.

-Look to the Northeast for a W-shaped constellation made of five stars. This is Cassiopeia, the queen of Ethiopia who was punished for her vanity by being hung in her throne upside down in the sky. Cepheus, her husband sits nearby, as a constellation that looks like a small house. The stars form a square with one star in the middle, and one star outside that makes the point of a triangular roof.

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