Finding magic in the sky.
Look up at the sky tonight. Really look at it. And if you find yourself marvelling at the mystical beauty of all that you see, know that you are echoing a practice that has fascinated humans for thousands of years. We have always taken to stargazing or skywatching to understand our place in the world and the cosmos. It’s an act that can fill you with a unique sensation of timelessness, a deep-seated, tingling connection to our foremothers and forefathers, who turned their heads up to the heavens with the same sense of wonder as you may be doing right now.
Over the centuries though, many of us have forgotten what to look for.
In this series of articles on amateur astronomy I want to explore simple ways to build knowledge and curiosity about the night sky. Ancient wisdom will be looked at through a modern lens of science and vice versa. We’ll become familiar with prominent constellations like Orion (The Hunter), Canis Major (The Great Dog) and the Ursa Major (Great Bear/Big Dipper), we’ll learn to tell how old a star is by observing its colour, and when to look out for the constellation that corresponds to our zodiac sign.
Astronomy, and the story-telling that is inextricably woven into it, is a fascinating way to get a one-of-a-kind perspective on human culture. Communities across the world have their own unique lore associated with this activity. Yet these stories often have amazing common threads.
The constellation Orion, for example, is described by the Ancient Greeks as a man pursuing the seven sisters of the Pleiades star cluster. This same constellation is Baiame in Wiradjuri Aboriginal Australian traditions: a man pursuing the Mulayndynang (Pleiades star cluster). And in the traditions of the Great Victoria Desert, Orion is Nyeeruna, a man chasing the seven Yugarilya sisters.
|Left image: by Sanu N | Right image: Scott Towney, ‘Mulayndynang, or The Seven Sisters, the star cluster also known as the Pleiades’, for the Wiradjuri Astronomy Project.|
Many newcomers to astronomy can find it overwhelming. The scale of objects and distances in the sky coupled with confusing technical terms, gives the impression that a simple understanding is not possible. But you need to focus on the fun part of astronomy first to really get into it.
Stargazing is first, and most importantly, an outdoor hobby. Spending an evening looking at the night sky either by yourself or with a group of friends is a really grounding way to spend your time. You can start simple — all you need are some snacks, a rug to lie back on and you can start making friends with the stars in the night sky with the help of simple resources like a star wheel or a phone application. I personally love to follow up every new star or constellation I learn about by reading about the myths and lore associated with it because the stories really draw me in and keep me hooked.
What Gear do I Need?
A misplaced idea about stargazing is that you need a fancy, expensive telescope to fully enjoy the experience. But to put a telescope to rewarding use, you first need to know the constellations with the naked eye, be able to find things like nebulae and even galaxies among them with sky charts, know what your telescope will and will not do, AND know enough about the objects you're seeking to recognise and appreciate them. If you’re just starting out, you don’t need one.
Instead, a pair of binoculars is the ideal "first telescope". Binoculars show you a wide field, making it easy to find your way around (as opposed to a higher-power telescope, which magnifies only a tiny, hard-to-locate spot of sky). They’re also fairly inexpensive, widely available, and a breeze to carry and store. Ok, so what do we need to know to get started?
Constellations are easily recognisable patterns that help people orient themselves using the night sky. There are 88 “official” constellations but if that seems a daunting number to start your astro journey, there’s good news—12 of those have super familiar names.
The word “zodiac” is roughly derived from Greek, meaning “circle of little animals”. The 12 constellations that make up the zodiac are Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces. What makes them easy to find and identify when you look up in the sky is that they lie in a neat order, one behind the other from east to west.
By Till Credner - Own work: Visual Constellations, a photographic field guide
Knowing the constellations that make up the zodiac is a great way to start learning about the sky. Each of them has a distinct shape and at least one noticeable, bright star. Both these characteristics are super helpful for beginners to orient themselves and become more familiar with the night sky.
In the next instalment of this series, we’ll delve deeper into the 12 constellations of the Zodiac and the key stars that can be found in them, until then, I hope you can now look up into the night and feel like you are just a little bit closer to home.
About the author:
Nupur D’Souza is at heart, a nature nut. She spends her time growing things and creating opportunities for people to access the outdoors with greater respect and wonder.