5 awesome constellations and how to find them

Man has been finding patterns and meanings in the stars for thousands of years, and we scour the night skies with the same fascination today. Here's a selection of heavenly wonders for the star-gazing beginner.

5 awesome constellations and how to find them

The first step is looking up

For city dwellers used to skies awash with light pollution, a star-spangled midnight-blue sky is a revelation. At first it looks like a blizzard of lights, but mentally filter out the fainter stars and you'll start to see the constellations.

  • There are 88 of these groups of celestial bodies.
  • They're not scientific entities but form patterns that appeal to the human imagination.

Finding Ursa Major

For star-spotters in the north, the Big Dipper, part of the constellation Ursa Major (the Great Bear), is a constant presence, one of the most easily recognizable star groups in the sky.

  • It has the shape of a saucepan — three stars for the handle, four for the bowl.
  • The two stars farthest from the handle are known as "pointer stars"
  • Follow the line of them and they draw your eye to Polaris, the North Star in the constellation Ursa Minor (Little Bear) and the tip of the bear's implausibly long tail.
  • Ursa Minor consists of seven main stars and is also known as the Little Dipper for its resemblance to a scoop.
  • Wherever you are in the northern hemisphere, if you're facing Polaris, you're facing north.

Finding Hydra

Another weird creature — best seen from the southern hemisphere although she rears her ugly heads in the north from January to May — is the Hydra.

  • The Hydra is a giant beast of mythology with the body of a dog and 100 snake-like heads.
  • This is the longest constellation in the sky and covers the largest area.
  • It's so long that it takes more than six hours to rise completely.
  • The Hydra resembles a snake twisting its way towards Canis Minor (Little Dog), which is visible in the northern hemisphere from December until April, and in the southern from November to April.
  • It represents the smaller of Orion's two hunting dogs.
  • Within Canis Minor, Procyon is the eighth brightest star in the night sky. The name means "before the dog," and it got its name because it rises before Sirius.

That's it -- now you can identify 5 constellations and know the stories behind them. Take some friends out stargazing and let your imagination take over.

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