Ah, spring. Trees are budding, my plum tree is preparing to flower, and the evenings are mild and great for taking a kid out stargazing. Here’s a quick guide to some of the things you can show them.
Looking west after sunset (that happens shortly after 8 p.m. for me in Fargo, ND), you’ll see a really bright star outshining everything else over there. That’s actually the planet Venus. Jupiter is also fairly bright, and is located far below Venus in the sky.
Venus is hanging out in the constellation of Taurus the Bull. There are a couple of objects of interest in Taurus. Below and to the left of Venus, the bright orange-red star Aldebaran is in the eye of the bull. This red giant star is positioned in front of the Hyades star cluster, a V-shaped group of stars in the bull’s face. Below and to the right of Venus is another star cluster that is shaped a bit like a mini-Dipper. This is the Pleiades star cluster. Pretty with just your eyes alone, you might also try aiming a pair of binoculars at these clusters if you have them.
In the southwest shines Orion the Hunter. Orion is one of my favorites. He is bright and distinct, and has some interesting things to point out and discuss with young astronomers. Ask them if they notice stars of different colors. In Orion, they should see one that is reddish, and one that is bluish. The red shoulder star Betelgeuse (usually pronounced “beetle-juice,” to the delight of children), is a red supergiant star that is about 85,000 times more luminous than our Sun. The bright star in the opposite corner of the Orion rectangle, Rigel, is a blue supergiant star. Star color is a clue to a star’s temperature. Which star do you think is hotter, the red or the blue? Due to some cues kids get (red for hot water/blue for cold water on faucets), they might think the red star is the hottest. But when it comes to star color, red stars are coolest, blue are hottest.
The three stars in the center of Orion form his belt. Below Orion’s Belt is a fuzzy spot called the sword of Orion. Here is the Orion Nebula, a huge cloud in space where stars are being born. If you use those belt stars to draw a line out leftward toward a bright star there, you will find the brightest star in the night sky. Tell your young astronomer to listen seriously if they want to learn that star’s name: the star is named Sirius. Sirius is found in the constellation of Canis Major, the Big Dog.
You might try quizzing your young astronomer later by telling them to listen seriously, and ask them, “What is the brightest star in the sky?” If they answer, “Sirius,” you may tease them that they didn’t listen seriously enough, because the brightest star in the sky is the Sun, and you didn’t ask them what was the brightest star in the night sky, you just asked them what was the brightest star in the sky.
Now if you look high up, the Big Dipper is positioned close to right overhead, looking ready to pour down April showers. This is where you look for the Dipper in springtime evenings: high overhead. The Big Dipper is not a constellation itself, but is part of a larger constellation called Ursa Major, the Big Bear.
The Dipper is an asterism, a well-known group of stars that form a picture but not designated as an official constellation. The Big Dipper is shaped like a ladle, with three stars in the handle and four stars in the bowl. The two stars at the end of the bowl can be used as pointer stars to find the north star: start with the star at the bottom of the Big Dipper’s bowl, draw a line up to the star on the top of the bowl, and extend it out till you run into a fairly bright star. This is Polaris, the north star. While the Dipper changes its position in the sky overnight or throughout the year, those pointer stars will always point you to Polaris. (And no, the north star is not the brightest star in the night sky.)
Once you’ve found Polaris, you can find the Little Dipper–if your sky is dark enough, because the Little Dipper’s stars are much dimmer than the Big Dipper’s. Polaris is in the end of the Little Dipper’s handle, so if you start arcing toward the bend in the Big Dipper’s handle, you trace out the curve of the Little Dipper.
If you use those pointer stars in the opposite direction, you can find Leo the Lion. The fun way to show a child this star-hopping trick is to ask them if they are feeling sneaky. If they are, then have them imagine that the bowl of the Big Dipper is filled with water, and if you poke the bottom of it full of holes, you can rain water down on Leo and give that big cat a surprise shower.
The head of Leo the Lion is shaped like a backwards question mark. Mars is currently shining in Leo the Lion, looking like a rusty red star.
Happy star-hopping, have fun sharing the night sky with the young astronomers in your life, and beware of lions!