Looking up in the northern sky the next clear, early autumn evening, catch the Little Dipper standing on its handle, and what I think of as King Cepheus’ "house" standing upside down on the peak of its roof.
Mankind (and woman-kind) has come up with an untold number of imaginative patterns among the stars, over the millennia and around the world. No matter when it was or what culture, we as a human race have shared the love of the sky and pondered its mysteries. To bring order to the seemingly innumerable stars and to help them remember their placement, those who "looked up" created constellations.
The International Astronomical Union (IAU), in 1922, boiled it down to 88 official constellations. There were many more at one time; it all depended on how one connected the stars.
To this day our society still recognizes other favorite patterns; although not officially a constellation, they are dignified with the term "asterism."
The Little Dipper is one of them. This collection of stars is simply the most prominent of the constellation Ursa Minor, the Little Bear. It’s the same with the Big Dipper; probably the most well known to anyone in the Northern Hemisphere, the Big Dipper is just a portion of the constellation, Ursa Major the Big Bear.
The "house" is just a way to depict the main stars of the constellation Cepheus the King. Next to Cepheus is the constellation Cassiopeia the Queen, more easily visualized by an asterism, the "Big W" or "Big M," depending on how the five brightest stars are oriented.
High up in the southern sky on early fall evenings is the Northern Cross, part of the constellation Cygnus the Swan.
Amateur astronomers will often find their own asterisms in the eyepiece of their telescope or using binoculars. The more they become popularized the more they are known by a given pattern and name, but they’re still not official constellations.
I have found it enjoyable to make patterns of stars in the telescope. It’s a good idea to make a chart, or photo if so equipped, and plot what you found on a detailed star atlas so you can find it again, and tell someone else.
There certainly isn’t any science to this, and the stars themselves know nothing of what we do! Constellations and asterisms are only what we see from our perspective in the Universe. If future astronauts were to venture a hundred light years away, for example, the familiar star patterns become significantly altered. Travel a thousand light years away and they mostly vanish among the changing arrangement of stars.
The tip of the "handle" of the Little Dipper, by the way, is none other than the North Star, Polaris. This star only makes a very small circle in the sky every 24 hours, as the Earth turns. The axis of the Earth points about a degree away from Polaris, around which the entire sky revolves — making the Sun rise and set, as well as all the night’s starry vault and everything else.
You need a fairly dark sky to see the Little Dipper well, as most of the stars are dim. Polaris and a star in the "bowl" are about equally bright (Polaris is magnitude +1.98 and Kochab. +2.08). Kochab, appears orange in binoculars or a small telescope. Use a small telescope at medium power to see if you can see the fainter companion star that accompanies Polaris.
The North Star is about 432 lights years away; Kochab is 131. At about equal brightness as seen to our eyes, it is clear that Polaris has the most "star power."
On early fall evenings, the house shape of Cepheus is high up; Cassiopeia, appearing as a tipping "W," is to the right. Over to the left is Draco the Dragon, a long constellation, its "tail" stars wrapped around and between the Little and Big Dippers. Note the "head" of the dragon, to upper left, a distinctive pattern of four stars.
Look due south as night falls for the planet Mars, bright and the color of rust.
The Moon reaches last quarter on October 2.
Keep looking up!
— Peter Becker is Managing Editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, PA. Notes are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please mention in what newspaper or web site you read this column.