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Getting Started

Constellation Tips

Morris Jones


Question: I would like to learn many of the constellations. Do you have any tips or recommended books that would help me learn?

The biggest help for me in learning the constellations was a computer planetarium program, such as SkyMap, Distant Suns, or many others. It's invaluable to be able to see a rendition of the sky that matches your time, orientation, and location, and without too much projection distortion.

There is one book I recommend, too, Turn Left at Orion by Consolmagno and Davis.

The key is to start with a few bright, recognizable constellations, and use them as guideposts to fill in the rest of the sky gradually. It's a year-long process to watch the sky go through all of the seasons.

Another tip is to set up at star parties next to experienced astronomers and pick up on their tips, tricks, and mnemonics for constellations and asterisms. What is listed as Sagitarius in the books will be known at any (northern hemisphere) star party as only "the teapot." Or "arc to Arcturus," then follow the line from Arcturus to Vega to see Corona Borealis and Hercules.

Then speak to your travel agent about extended visits to the opposite hemisphere from the one you live in, at different times of the year. [:)]

On the contraindicated side, I suggest that commonly available planispheres are useful only if you already know the constellations fairly well. The projection distortions around the edge of a planisphere render the constellations almost unrecognizable. ("What teapot?")

Another factor that inhibits the learning of constellations is the treatment of constellations individually. To me it's much easier to understand and recognize constellations in the context of their neighbors and place in the sky. I find this to be a problem with many of the books and catalogs, and an otherwise excellent ASP constellation slide set. Once again, such things are useful if you're already familiar with the constellations, but are difficult in the context of trying to learn them.

One last tip: Most of the constellations are either totally faint, or unrecognizable when their fainter members can't be seen. Get away from town to see, for instance, the girl in the sky in Virgo, the arrow in Sagitta, or the dolphin in Delphinus.


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