Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Master Guide Secrets: The Stars Part 1

Time lapse photograph of the North Sky Circle
The North Sky Circle
by Tom King (c) 2013

To secure your reputation as a repository of outdoor skills and nature lore, you need only look to the night sky for help.  Camping trips are a perfect time to introduce kids to the stars, not just as interesting points of light, but also as guides for helping youngsters find themselves.

There are three parts of the sky that represent the minimum number of stars you should remember as a North American youth leader.  Knowing these constellations and some of the more prominent attendant stars will help you tick off one of the requirements for your star honor and will help you find some interesting objects to look at through a telescope to boot.  Over the next few days we'll be doing a quick run-through of these familiar and easy to identify objects in the sky and talking about how to introduce these constellations and the special objects that make them up.

Let's start with the North Sky Circle.  This is an imaginary circle of constellations around Polaris, the pole star.  In northern states and Canada, these stars are visible year round.  In southern states, you may lose the ones at the lower end as they dip below the horizon as they circle the North Star, often being obliterated by lights from towns over the horizon. 

Here are the important and easy to identify constellations of the North Sky Circle:

Most easily identified constellations of the North Sky Circle

These constellations are::

  1. The Big Dipper:  It's Latin name is Ursa Major meaning "The Great Bear".  It is such a striking constellation it has a lot of names in various cultures including the Plow, The Starry Plow, The Drinking Gourd, The Great Wagon, the Fisher Cat and dozens of others.  It contains three interesting stars that we will discuss in Part 2.  Two are well-known pointers and show you the way to the North Star, who's constellation, the Little Dipper is harder to find than the Big Dipper.
  2.  The Little Dipper:  Often paired with the Big Dipper because of its similar shape, it's Latin name is Ursa Minor or "The Little Bear".  It's also called the little Wagon and other variants on "little" depending on what they call the Big Dipper.  It's most interesting feature is the North Star, also known as Polaris or the Pole Star.  Found at tip of the Little Dipper's handle, the North Star can be seen in the picture above almost at the very center of the circle of stars. The North Star used to be dead center of the circle, but as the sun moves round the Milky Way, it's moved a bit in several thousand years since it was first spotted.
  3. Draco, the Dragon:  Draco is pretty easy to spot if you can find it's head which has a rather serpent-like shape to it.  It snakes between the Big and little Dippers.
  4. Cepheus:  Cepheus is an ancient king whom Ptolemy named the constellation after. The constellation is not too prominent and looks like a whoppy-jointed house after a hurricane. Cepheus is the consort of Cassiopeia which is a much lovelier constellation and easier to find.
  5. Cassiopeia:  Also called the Queen, Cassiopeia looks like a big "W" in the sky or an "M" depending on whether it's on the top of the North Sky Circle or the bottom.
This gives you five prominent constellations that are very easy to find and can be spotted almost anytime in the night sky.  The easiest way to show them to the kids is to point them out with a big flashlight.

Okay, stop laughing.  I know what that sounds like, but I find that a two million candlepower rechargeable flashlight is an extremely valuable star-watching tool.  Because the air usually contains dust particle or moisture, a very bright flashlight will make a beam like a searchlight in a dark sky.  If you place the child's face close to yours and shine the light beam toward toward the constellation, tracing it's shape with the beam , most kids will be able to spot it.

A trick I use is to give them all little notebooks and have them draw the constellation or stick stars on the pages to show the shape of the constellation.  Then you can go back and label the individual stars, nebulae and stuff later when you prepare them for their test.  I have a star honor test I've made up and a check off sheet I'll post when the series is done.  It covers everything they have to know to get a star honor.

In upcoming segments, we'll look at neat objects within these favorite constellations that you can look at with your telescope or binoculars or which have interesting stories - in some cases, like the Orion Nebula, these objects not only look neat, but have really cool stories to go with them. For now, though, your assignment is to go outside on the next clear night and see how many of the five North Sky Circle constellation we've discussed that you can see.

Catch you next time. Happy star-gazing.


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