At some point in their lives, everyone has been out at night looking at the stars overhead and perhaps on more than one occasion have seen a particularly bright star and asked themselves, “I wonder what star that is?” How many of you have ever made the effort to find out?

If you’ve asked yourself that question you are certainly not alone. From the beginning of time, mortals have gazed at the celestial dome arching above them and were in awe of the thousands of points of light shining back at them. To be able to go into that still night and learn the starry names and patterns overhead marks the beginning of an outdoor nature hobby that can become a lifetime of pleasure. So what is the best advice to give a beginner?

One of the best sources of material to get you started in stargazing is the public library. You’ll find all kinds of books and magazines that are written especially for young amateur astronomers, and the more you read the more you’ll improve your observing skills.

Self-education is fine as far as it goes, but there is nothing that can compare with sharing an interest with others. There are an estimated 400 astronomy clubs in the United States, and the Omaha Astronomical Society (OAS) is just one of them.

The OAS meets on the first Friday of the month at 7:30 p.m. in room 169 of the Durham Science Center on the campus of the University of Nebraska at Omaha. You are more than welcome to attend. For more information on the OAS, visit their website: omahaastro.com.

I am certain that everyone at one time or another has noticed the different patterns of stars in the sky above the metro area. These patterns of stars, called constellations, help you learn your way through the sky. The astronomical community recognizes 88 constellations but of that number only 57 of them are visible above our local metropolitan horizon.

I am also certain that just about everyone can locate the pattern of stars known as the Big Dipper. It is one of the most familiar of all star patterns but it is not a constellation in and of itself. The Big Dipper is referred to as an asterism.

Finding North in the night sky is really very easy if you just locate the Big Dipper and use two of its “bowl” stars as guides.

The dipper is actually part of the constellation Ursa Major (Large Bear) and is made up of seven stars. Beginning at the end of the handle the stars are named: Alkaid, Alcor, Alioth, Megrez, Phecda, Merak and Dubhe.

That second star in the dipper’s handle is what astronomers refer to as an optical double.

If you have very good visual acuity, it is possible to see both Alcor and its accompanying star Mizar without having to use an optical aid. Early Indian cultures referred to the double star as the “Horse and Rider.”

It is also interesting to learn that many optometrists use a patient’s ability to separate the stars visually as an indication of good vision.

Using the Big Dipper as a guide, notice the two stars at the end of the “bowl”. These stars, again, are named Merak (on the lower right) and Dubhe (on the upper right). They are also referred to as the pointer stars since the distance between them multiplied five times along an imaginary line will bring you to the north star Polaris, the star that marks the end of small bear in the constellation of Ursa Minor.

— Gary W. Moore is a syndicated columnist, speaker and author of three books including the award-winning, critically acclaimed, “Playing with the Enemy.” 

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