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There is some essential information that every beginning amateur astronomer should know.  Ben Balmages, from the Starry Knights Foothill High School Astronomy Club, has assembled a nice practical list.  If the general public only understood this much about the sky...!!


Starry Knights Foothill High School Astronomy Club, Santa Ana, California, "Basic Rules of Stargazing(v.6)," 1998 by Ben Balmages


(These rules are accurate for all practical purposes.  They become inaccurate only over hundreds to thousands of years.)

 1.  The stars never move in relation to each other.  They are always the same distance apart (degrees across the sky) and in the same patterns.

 2.  The sun, moon, planets (and their moons), comets and asteroids do move (changes their positions among the stars).

 3.  Each star always rises and sets in the same positions on the horizons (from the same viewing spots).

 4.  All stars rise in the east and set in the west.

 5.  Some stars are visible every night of the year, all night long.  This is due to their proximity to Polaris, the North Star.  These are called "Circumpolar Stars."  (Example, the Little Dipper.)  Circumpolar stars rotate counterclockwise around the North Star.  Polaris is the only star that is always in the same spot.

 6.  All stars rise (and set) approximately four minutes earlier each day.  In a month the stars rise and set two hours earlier.  Over the course of a year this amounts to 24 hours.

 7.  All stars are in the same positions at the same date and time each year.  (Example: On November 15, 1997 at 10:30 p.m. the Little Dipper will be in the same position as on November 15, 1998 at 10:30 p.m.)

8.  Each hour the stars move 15 degrees across the sky.  During each 24 hours the stars all make one revolution around the earth (as the earth spins on its axis).  If you stay up all night, you can see just about all of the stars that can be seen from your latitude.  The only ones you would not see are those close in the sky where to the sun is.

 9.  The stars are there during the daytime but we cannot see them because of the light of the sun.

 10.  The stars you can see change with your latitude.  (Longitude is irrelevant.)  People at the same latitude see the same stars, no matter in what country they are.  People in Los Angeles see the same stars as people in Tokyo and Beirut.

 11.  Polaris is almost directly above the earth's North Pole.  The height Polaris is above your horizon (in degrees) is equal to your latitude.  In Los Angeles, Polaris is about 34 degrees above the horizon.  At the North Pole, Polaris is 90 above the horizon (straight overhead).  At the equator it is 0degrees above the horizon.  At the North Pole, all visible stars are circumpolar, none of them rise or set but they all travel in lines parallel to the horizon.

 12.  There are 88 official constellations.  We can see about 60 of them from our latitude (over the course of a year, or a full night of stargazing).

 13.  The sun is a star.  Unless you are properly equipped with filters and trained in their use, do not look at the sun with a telescope or binoculars.  Shooting stars are not stars.  They are small grains of dirt entering the earth's atmosphere at high speed and burning up due to friction.

 14.  The Celestial Sphere is a convenient method for mapping the sky.  It assumes that the Earth is at the center of a giant sphere on which are found all of the stars, planets, moons, comets, asteroids, galaxies, etc.  All these objects except the planets, moons, comets and asteroids of our solar system are at fixed points on this sphere (whatever the position of the Earth.)  The Celestial Equator is an extension into space of the Earth's Equator.  The Celestial Poles are extensions of the Earth's poles.  Each point on the celestial sphere has two coordinates, Right Ascension and Declination, which are similar to longitude and latitude on Earth.  The R.A. and Dec. of the stars and deep space objects never change.  Those of the planets, moons, comets and asteroids of our solar system do change as they move among the stars.

15.  As the Earth rotates on its axis, the Sun appears to travel from east to west around the Earth.  On each day, the Sun is "in" a particular constellation, which means that if you could see the stars during daylight, the Sun would appear to be part of a constellation.  As the year progresses and the Earth revolves around the Sun, the Sun appears to be "in" different constellations.  The path the Sun appears to travel through the constellations is called the Ecliptic and the constellations it passes through are known as the constellations of the Ecliptic or the Zodiac.  Traditionally, there were thought to be 12 constellations of the Zodiac but, in reality, the Sun passes through 13 constellations.  These constellations are Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpius, Ophiuchus, Sagittarius, Capricornus, Aquarius and Pisces.  The Sun is always in one of these constellations and moves completely through them slowly over the course of a year. 

 16.  The Moon rises an average of about 50 minutes later each day.  The full Moon rises at about sunset and sets at about sunrise.  The new Moon rises and sets approximately with the sun, which is why we cannot see it.  The first quarter Moon, is straight overhead at sunset and sets at midnight.  The third quarter Moon rises at about midnight and is straight overhead at sunrise.  A waxing Moon is in the shape of a "D", that is, it bulges to the right.  A waning Moon is shaped like a "C", it bulges to the left.


1998 by Ben Balmages