Stargazing mapping the universe

Horsehead Nebula in Constellation Orion

Stargazing is as old as humanity itself, and anyone whose gone camping at a National Park knows how beautiful the clear night sky can be. Not only is stargazing the perfect nighttime leisure experience for an any outdoor adventurer, but many useful skills can come from equipping yourself with a knowledge of the stars. For centuries, humans have navigated their way around this Earth using the stars as their guiding lights. Like an age-old GPS system, being able to get your bearings using the stars was, and continues to be, a useful skill for wilderness wanderers. The Polynesians, for example, would use the stars as a map to guide them across the oceans from island to island. (Ever wonder how people got to Hawai'i before airplanes and google maps?) Their location near the equator was actually perfect for navigation since the zodiacal constellations (Gemini, Scorpio, Leo, etc.) appear to cross directly overhead, clearly dividing the Northern Skies from the Southern Skies. Here's a short video illustrating what the Polynesians saw as they sailed east across the Pacific Ocean, showcasing how handy a solid knowledge of stars and constellations can be for any explorer:

(Being able to locate certain constellations can also provide the opportunity to see some pretty spectacular sights. No need for expensive telescopes either, these objects in the constellation Taurus can be seen through binoculars.)

Left: Crab Nebula, Right: The Pleiades, both in Constellation Taurus

A little bit about myself... My interest in the stars began in 8th grade, when my science teacher taught me how to locate Orion. By the Summer between 8th grade and Freshman year, I had seen my first shooting star, and since then I've seen too many to count. My interest continued to grew once I began studying astrology and astronomy, and nowadays I can locate the ecliptic, a couple nebulae, and numerous constellations. Lately, I have been interested in being able to navigate using the night sky as a map.

As a prospective future Park Ranger, I'm interested in honing my stellar navigation skills down because, well... National Parks don't usually have the greatest reception... And I'm sure it's all to easy to get lost at night. So, going from here I would like to memorize the constellations to the point where I can easily tell which direction I'm looking in. Though I don't have this down to a science, I can tell you a little bit about what I do know:

The two most common things known about the night sky are the: 1) The constellation known as the "The Big Dipper" (Ursa Major), and 2) The North Star (Polaris) points North. This is a good starting point to get your bearings, but most people don't known where the North Star is. To find it, use the two stars that are opposite from the "handle" side. The North star should line up with these two stars above the Dipper. Contrary to popular myth, the North Star is not the brightest star in the sky, so don't be surprised if following the brightest star leads you in the opposite direction.

Knowing little tips such as this could have a highly positive impact as a Park Ranger. Honing these skills could possible save someone during an emergency if there is no other means of navigation. That's why I believe it is also important to spread this knowledge to others in the field of Outdoor Recreation, so that everyone is prepared in case of a compass-less catastrophe.

Eagle Nebula in Constellation Serpens (My personal favorite)

If you would like to learn more about stars, the constellations, or navigation, check out the following links:


Created with images by nigelhowe - "Stars"

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