This article explains the primary and well-known constellations every novice navigator should know.
Constellations Used for Navigation (Explained)
The night sky is filled with stars and intricate constellations holding importance in history, culture, and science.
Whether you’re a novice in the world of astronomy, or a veteran, stars and constellations will always be mesmerizing, even more so if you can identify them properly.
Among the various stars and constellations used for celestial navigation, the most notable are Polaris (used in the northern hemisphere), the Western Zodiac (used by astronomers/astrologers), Orion (holds significance in Greek folk tales), and Ursa Major.
If you’re curious about how to identify constellations for celestial navigation, and what those constellations signify, you’ve come to the right place.
The next section will tell you information about some major stars, constellations, their discovery, location, stories, and how to identify them.
Well-known Constellations in the Northern Hemisphere
1- Ursa Major
Also known as the bigger dipper, this constellation is very easy to locate because:
· It takes the shape of a big bear
· It has a lot of clustered stars
· Also has the shape of a large water dipping spoon
· The ladle of the spoon can be used to find Ursa Minor
2- Ursa Minor
More commonly known as the little dipper, Ursa Minor is also known as the little bear, nicknamed by the Greeks, located near the big dipper, Ursa Major.
It also has the brightest star in its constellation known as Polaris, or the North Star.
So if you’re looking for the north, it’s better to locate that star first (in the handle of Ursa Minor).
Once you’ve identified the North Star, start navigating by finding your latitude first using a sextant or a quadrant to help you figure out the angle between Polaris and the northern horizon.
Although you can find the latitude without tools too, just place your fist hand-over-hand up to the North star, every fist amounting to 10 degrees.
In Greek mythology, Cepheus was the king of Aethiopia, husband to Cassiopeia the Queen, and father to Andromeda, all three of which are a part of the Perseus family, located next to each other.
Cepheus looks like an upside down house with a trapezium and a triangle attached together and houses the Garnet star, one of the largest stars in the milky way.
Cassiopeia was a Greek queen known for her vain ways and shallow personality, but the constellation is far different from the folk tales.
Shaped like a W, or an M in a classic zig-zag pattern, this constellation was first charted by a Greek astronomer named Ptolemy, who also charted the rest of the Perseus family.
Once you’ve identified Cassiopeia in the sky, the rest of the Perseus family for example Andromeda, Cepheus won’t be too hard to find, with the right equipment, location, and time.
Being the 8th largest constellation known and discovered, this constellation is in the shape of a dragon, representative of the mythical creature who guarded the Hesperides gardens.
It was also discovered and cataloged by Ptolemy, and is located near Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, with some of its stars being directly in the middle of the aforementioned constellations.
The constellation takes the shape of a mirrored S letter, with a starry loop around the top part of the letter.
This constellation also writes around the North star, so if you’ve located Polaris, it won’t be too hard to find Draco either.
To find out which direction the south is in, first you have to identify Orion, which is in the shape of a bent hourglass or more commonly known as a hunter with a belt, sword, arched bow and arrow.
Made up of several well-known stars (Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, Saiph), this constellation is best shown in the northern hemisphere during late winter nights.
The south will be in the direction Orion’s sword is pointing to, making it easier for you to navigate without a compass.
Well-known Constellations in the Southern Hemisphere
1- Carina Constellation
Also known as The Keel (after the keel of a ship), this constellation was charted and grouped by Ptolemy, later revised by a French astronomer as an individual constellation.
In the shape of a cursive M, Carina includes the 2nd brightest star in the sky named Canopus.
This constellation is medium sized and lies in the second quadrant of the southern hemisphere.
The Crux is the most important constellation in the southern hemisphere, mainly because it is used by navigators and astronomers to locate other constellations in the hemisphere.
This constellation might be one of the smallest, but it’s also the most important.
Also known as the Southern Cross, this constellation has 5 bright stars in the shape of a cross, hence why it’s so easy to identify and the literal crux of navigation.
The stars at the top of the cross is Gamma Crux, or Gacrux, and the one at the bottom is Acrux, the arms being Becrux and Delta Crux, and the smaller star in the middle called Epsilon.
To navigate, use your hand to draw a line from Gacrux to Acrux and extending that line about 4.5 times.
The end of the line will be closer to the southern celestial pole.
From there draw another line to the horizon, now your body will be facing the proper direction with north behind you, east to your left, and west to the right.
Being one of the largest constellations in the milky way, Centaurus was named after the Greek mythical creature centaur, half horse, half man.
The constellation is thus in the shape of a centaur, with several protruding stars.
The constellation is made up of a total of 13 stars, including the major two stars Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri, located near the Water monster and the Scorpion constellations.
The stars you see in the night sky hold many stories, and represent several mythical creatures present in various folk tales across the world.
Now that you know how to locate and navigate using the main constellations and stars, we hope you can use this knowledge to your advantage whenever you get lost, or just for leisure purposes.
You might also like:
- What Are Constellations Used For?
- A Guide To Greek Constellations
- A Guide To Navigation Constellations
- Constellations For Love (A List)
- Constellations For Friendship (A List)
- Animal Constellations (a Guide)
- Autumn Constellations
- Spring Constellations
- Winter Constellations
- Summer Constellations
- What Are Circumpolar Stars?