Constellations in the Sky

With so many to see, why not take advantage of clear spring nights to check out the constellations in the sky?

| March/April 1981

Imagine that it's an invitingly crisp evening, with just a touch of warmth in the air to herald the arrival of spring. After the dinner dishes are done, you stroll outside to take in the fading glow of daylight. While dusk deepens, you watch the evening star growing brighter as it chases the sun westward. If it's a clear night, you might also pick out the still-dim shape of the Big Dipper before retreating inside.

But wait a minute! If you retire early, you'll miss the best part of the astral show. In fact, the opening act has only just begun when the first few stars pop into sight. Each night, season after season, those little points of light fill the firmament with constellations in the sky.

The "New" Way

Most constellations really do look like the persons, creatures, or objects that they're named for ... provided the stars that make up the pictures are connected properly. The problem is that most traditional astral charts connect the "dots" randomly, in a pattern that — more often than not — doesn't even resemble what it's supposed to be (according to its name).

There is, however, a happy exception to that rule: H.A. Rey's book The Stars: A New Way to See Them (Houghton Mifflin, 1976). Rey's "new" method actually helps the stargazer visualize the constellations as familiar figures or objects, much as the ancients must have seen them. The celestial charts in his book simply connect the stars in meaningful patterns, to produce recognizable shapes.

For instance, the constellation of Gemini, or the Twins, is outlined — on most star charts — by a confusing shape that's difficult to trace in the sky (and even harder to remember). But Rey's version of that star group is an appealing pair of hand-holding stick figures ... which, once you've picked them out the first time, will be hard to miss in the night sky.

In the same way that you can "meet" the Twins, you can learn to recognize lots of other constellations ... but don't expect to always make such acquaintances easily, since (like any good friends) they'll require some time and effort to get to know. The truth is that finding all the stars of a constellation is often difficult: Some are faint, some hide behind background haze, and others are deceptively far apart.

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