How to enjoy mindful stargazing and discover the stories behind the constellations
Whatever earthly troubles may have been tinkering in your mind, a look up to the night’s sky will bring peace and illuminate the universe and your place within it, says Helen Martin
Stars, those magnificent fixed luminous points in the sky, a combination of gases and dust held together by their own gravity, have held huge significance for people on Earth for thousands of years. From an important navigational tool for explorers past and present, to the zodiac signs with their personality traits, they have formed the folklore and religious practices of cultures all over the world.
There are approximately 200 to 400 billion stars in our own Milky Way Galaxy and most are between one and 10 billion years old. Our closest stars are nearly four and a half light years away from us, so we never see the stars in ‘real time’. To journey through the night sky and identify a star, to see a cocoon of interstellar gas and dust, a scattering of newborn stars lying light years away, is nothing but a rush, a beautiful feeling. During set times of the year, certain constellations, planets and meteor showers are much more visible, including the 12 constellations that straddle the sun’s path across the sky (known as the ecliptic) – the signs of the zodiac.
Indigenous Australians, the most ancient continuous civilisation on Earth, have traditions shown in dance, song and tales passed down their 50,000-year history, celebrating the night sky. Their very creation – the Dreaming, when the Spirit Ancestors created the world – is deeply entwined with nature, the land and cosmos. Their ancient belief is that the stars are a crucial part of the human existence, a part of us. Without them, we would not be.
This rings true with today’s physicists and astronomers, who believe everything in the universe, including humans and the Earth, originated from stardust. Within each star are ferocious nuclear reactions at their core, creating their energy. Almost every element on earth has been formed at the heart of a star and it continually flows through us even today. We are directly connected to the universe. There’s something incredibly poetic and powerful about this. The Greeks saw constellations as pictures; figures and shapes, gods, goddesses and mythical beasts. First mentioned in Greek literature by Homer and Hesiad in 700BC, they were used as a way to illustrate stories with the patterns made to fit into the sky. Since 1922, a list of 88 recognised constellations created by the International Astronomical Union has been used by astronomers. However, for centuries, 2nd-century astronomer Ptolemy’s list of 48 constellations was seen as the benchmark for astronomy.
How to look for constellations in the night sky
The best way to navigate yourself around the night’s sky is to starhop, starting from a fixed point and then working your way around. In the Northern Hemisphere, look out for the North Star, Polaris. You can do this by first locating The Plough composed of seven bright stars in an upwards spoon shape; four in the handle and three in the spoon. Trace a line up from the bottom of the spoon to locate Polaris.
In the Southern Hemisphere, extend the long arm of the Southern Cross, four of the brightest stars in the sky in the shape of a cross, four and a half times to reach close to the Southern Celestial Pole, an imaginary point in the sky directly above south. Move around the sky from your guiding point, one star at a time until you reach the constellation you would like to identify.
In September, you may be able to see a swan with its wings spread out parallel to the horizon. This is Cygnus, or the Northern Cross, identified with several legendary swans. These include the swan that Zeus disguised himself as to seduce Leda, and the grieving Cycnus, whose brother’s chariot was destroyed by Zeus’s thunderbolt. With its ochre hue, the planet Mercury will be brightest and easiest to spot in the morning sky between September 6-20. It appears an hour after sunset in the western sky and one hour before sunrise in the eastern sky. And don’t forget Aquila, the eagle that bore Ganymede (Aquarius) and thunderbolt carrier to Zeus. Aquila lies in the Milky Way band, and its most prominent star is Altair, which is one of the closest naked eye stars to the earth.
Handsome Aquarius can be seen during October in the southern hemisphere and is represented by Ganymede, who was recognised by Zeus for his good looks, and so became cupbearer of the gods. For his service, he was granted both eternal youth and a place in the sky. October also sees the Draconid, an annual meteor shower created when the Earth passes through the dust debris left by comet 21 P/ Giacobini-Zinner. Best viewing is in the early evening.
Another meteor shower, Orionids will also be visible this year from October to early November. Cassiopeia was forced to the heavens as punishment after she had boasted that her, or her daughter Andromeda’s, beauty was greater than that of the sea nymphs. Cassiopeia can be seen, suspended in the sky in a distinctive ‘W’ shape, during November.
In this month, also look out for Pisces, two fish representing Aphrodite and her son, Eros. They tied themselves together after turning into fish in an attempt to escape the monster, Typhon. You will see Pisces as a large ‘V’ with a small ‘O’ on the end.
Also from November 6-30, look out for the Leonid meteor shower. In December you will be able to see Aries, a ram with a Golden Fleece symbolic of kingship and authority. And look out for The Geminids, producing up to 120 multicoloured meteors per hour at its peak, as well as the Ursids shower, also in December. The former is associated with an asteroid as opposed to a comet and can be observed from locations all over the world. It is expected to reach its peak on December 21-22. Prepare to see spectacular glowing arcs of white, yellow, blue, red and green.
What equipment do you need for stargazing?
Remember, before you embark on any stargazing adventure into the darkness, pack a notebook, binoculars, a compass, warm blanket and a flask of something hot. Stargazing involves considerable time outside at night, so you need to be warm and comfortable.
Facts and mythology on the cosmos have long aided an understanding of our place on this planet, as well as fostered a respect for the land and environment. There’s a consistent element of mystery and magic that comes with the awe of looking at a scattering of stars and it’s the knowledge that there’s something much bigger than us out there than us, that Earth and life is a gift, that’s immediately grounding.
Allow the world to melt away around you as you take some deep breaths and look up. The moon is the first connection to Earth; its regularity and predictability as it waxes and wanes is both comforting and powerful. Watch the moon at the same time each night, trace the stars and take note of their patterns, try and jot them down. Regale the stories of the stars and make up your own; folklore is created for us to understand human existence, as well as the mysterious and magical. Looking up at the night sky in times of peace or uncertainty reminds us of these stories, those before us, next to us and those to inhabit the future. Find strength in the cosmos’ consistency. Make a wish; who knows what might happen.
6 top places to stargaze
Western Australian Outback
Due to Australia’s remoteness the night sky is vast and filled with stars. The view of the Milky Way, Magellanic Clouds and Southern Cross is beautifully clear, as are the meteor showers, shooting stars and bright moon.
The South Downs National Park, England
Just an hour from London, the park is said to be one of the most accessible dark-sky areas in the world. You’ll see star clusters, nebulae and galaxies beyond the Milky Way. February sees return of the Dark Skies Festival.
High volcanoes of Hawaii
With its position so close to the equator, high volcanic peaks – including the tallest sea mountain in the world – and lack of light pollution, Hawaii is an idyllic stargazing spot. Expect to see the constellations of the zodiac, Saturn and the Southern Cross.
Snowdonia National Park, Wales
One of 10 International Dark Sky Reserves, you may find the Milky Way illuminating owls as well as major constellations, nebulas and shooting stars. It’s over 800 square miles in size with over 90 peaks to stargaze from.
Perthshire has one of the largest expanses of dark sky in Europe. It’s also home to Europe’s second Dark Sky Park where you can view 7,000 stars, see planets with the naked eye, and hunt for the Northern Lights – the ‘Mirrie Dancers’ – in autumn and winter.