Your Constellation Adventure Begins At The Great Square

While driving one day north of Duluth, Minn. I found a painting of Pegasus the Winged Horse, one of fall’s most distinctive constellations, painted on the side of this barn. Bob King

Many of us would like to learn a few new constellations. Even I would. Although I know my way around the northern hemisphere sky parts of the southern hemisphere firmament are terra incognita. Or more accurately caelum (for sky) incognito. After teaching many classes about the night sky, that’s the hope of the majority of students — to find new constellations.

Look east at nightfall to spot the Great Square and the W of Cassiopeia the Queen. From there you can expand your constellation knowledge to Andromeda the Princess, Triangulum the Triangle and Perseus the Hero. The stars of the Square are labeled after baseball bases. If you go out at 9 p.m. all these groups will be higher up in the east and even easier to see. Stellarium

With that in mind we’ll start with autumn’s easiest star patterns, located in the eastern sky at nightfall, and expand from there. If you face east and look approximately halfway up between the horizon and the overhead point you’ll see a box of sky framed by four modestly bright stars. That’s an asterism called the Great Square. I liken it to a baseball diamond with home plate on the bottom, first base at right, second on top and 3rd base to the left. Raise your fist to the sky, and you’ll find that the Great Square is about one to one-an-a-half fists wide along each side.

Time exposure showing the Great Square asterism rising in the eastern sky in the early evening. Bob King

From here you can connect the “dots” to form the outline of Pegasus the Flying Horse. Fainter stars extending from second base form the legs while additional stars starting at first base represent the horse’s neck with Enif as his nose. Enif is an Arabic word that means exactly that. The star at third base, the lower left side of the Great Square is officially a member of the neighboring constellation Andromeda but for practical purposes the two constellations share it. Its name is Alpheratz (AL-fer-rats), the Arabic word for the horse’s belly button.

To find Andromeda start at Alpheratz and look a fist-and-a-half below and left to spot an equally bright star. Continue past this star another 1.5 fists to Almach (ALL-mahk). Running almost parallel above these three fairly bright stars are several other fainter ones. The two strings of star — lower and upper — look like one of those old, rabbit-eared TV antennas sticking out the side of the Great Square. If you see the “antenna” you’ve found Andromeda. Congratulations!

Many of our featured constellations are shown in this time exposure. I also included Aries, a small group located directly below Triangulum. It’s high enough to clear the trees starting about 9 p.m. local time. The Andromeda Galaxy is the most distant object most people can see with the naked eye at 2.5 million light years. With the moon out it’s tricky to spot, but it’s currently still visible in a pair of binoculars from suburban and rural areas. Bob King

Now return to Almach in Andromeda by way of the Great Square. One fist below the star three fainter ones trace out a compact triangle. No kidding — that’s a real constellation named Triangulum the Triangle.

Returning yet again to Almach, we’ll use it to make a foray into Perseus the Hero. Perseus might be familiar to you from the Perseid meteor shower that lights up the sky every August. The meteors are called the Perseids because they radiate from the direction of Perseus. A fist-and-a-half to the left of Almach and a little below you’ll run into Mirfak, the brightest star in Perseus. If you connect Mirfak with two fainter stars above it and a “curl” of stars below it, you’ll make a fish hook. Dangling off the sides of the hook are additional stars that fill out the constellation’s outline.

We’ll finish with a constellation that’s been staring you in the face the whole time you’ve been bouncing around the Great Square — the familiar W of Cassiopeia the Queen. You can’t miss that little zigzag even you tried.

We started with a simple square, and we’re now five constellations richer. Happy hunting!

2 Responses

  1. Edward M Boll

    I heard about a star party 45 miles away. It was the first night in 2 weeks that looked promising. I debated about it and decided to try it out
    In the cities 30 years ago, I used to drive 50 miles sometimes. And it had been a long time since I had a good view of Saturn and Jupiter in a good eye piece
    I looked the location up on the internet then drove to the park. I drove and drove seeing nothing, until I saw a car parked, and several ahead of it. I walked and found over 100 people looking in telescopes. I finally got a look at Saturn. It was a little blurry but so close to the Moon. The head teacher was pointing out constellation after constellation. I unfortunately missed the telescope aimed at the Moon. I asked about Jupiter and he said that it was too low. I could see it getting close to the trees. About to leave he asked about April 8, 2024, then I spoke up, because I do know about eclipses. After answering several questions he asked me if there was something I did not know about. Well, I admit that I am not great on constellations but it was worth the drive. On the way home, I saw several reflections of the Moon, on the water. On the way home, I even had an hour with my ageing parents and still got home by 11.

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