First Light Guides: 5 shapes to learn the stars

Learning the night sky does take time - but it need not be difficult. And there really are some easy ways to learn the night sky - all you need to know are a few basic shapes in the night sky, and you can find your way to many other bright stars and constellations. There's just 5 shapes to know, and you find your way around from them.

NOTE: All of these graphics are taken from the same relative angular view, so each graphic shows the constellation at it's relative size compared to the others graphics.

The Big Dipper

Perhaps the best known is the Big Dipper, or Plough

Big Dipper to find other constellations 


In the northern hemisphere, the sky appears to revolve around the north star, or Polaris. Because the stars close to Polaris do not "set" below the horizon for many northern hemisphere observers, astronomers call these "circumpolar" stars, because they circle the pole continuously. The Big Dipper contains many of these stars.

Opposite from the Big Dipper - that is to say, across the center of a circle, with Polaris in the middle - is Cassiopeia the Queen. This constellation is easily recognized, just like the Big Dipper is. Cassiopeia looks like a "W" or flattened "M" shape, depending on it's orientation around Polaris and how you view it. This shape can point to some nearby constellations; learn which ones here: Cassiopeia points to several constellations

Find constellations from Cassiopeia the Queen

The Summer Triangle

Further away from the pole star are some simple, almost elementary shapes. One is quite large and contains three bright, first magnitude stars. It is the Summer Triangle. This shape is not a constellation itself, but is easily identified from the three bright stars in the three constellations in and around it. Also, though it is listed as being the "Summer" Triangle, it can actually be seen from late spring through late autumn in many locations. It can also lead observers to quite a few constellations; find out which ones here: Summer Triangle points to constellations. 

Summer Triangle points to many constellations

The Great Square of Pegasus

As the Summer Triangle sets towards the west (all stars set towards the west, just like the Sun does), a shape that follows it in the sky is a square. Not as large, and not as bright as the Summer Triangle, the Great Square of Pegasus nonetheless is useful to find quite a few autumn constellations and stars. Learn which ones by following this link: Great Square of Pegasus leads to constellations.

Great Square of Pegasus points to constellations


And finally, in the winter sky, an easily-recognized pattern of stars is visible in the south. Orion, the Hunter, is a distinctly shaped set of four stars in a quadrangle that surround a nearly-perfect line of three stars that are almost equal in brightness. This has the effect of causing many a human - present and past - to see this shape as a person with a belt of stars bisecting the midsection. 

Learn what stars and constellations can be found from Orion here: Orion points the way to constellations

Orion points to constellations in the sky