What's that up there in the night sky?


I supposed it was growing up in a small village isolated in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina that got me hooked on backyard astronomy.

Even in the “downtown” area of my hometown, light pollution was never really a problem. It was easy to find good places to view the heavens relatively unimpeded.

When it came to viewing constellations — groupings of stars that usually resemble an animal or some noted mythological character — three of my earliest friends were the Big Bear (Ursa Major), the Little Bear (Ursa Minor) and Orion, the Hunter.

From there, my list of celestial acquaintances grew exponentially. In due time, there was Scorpio the Scorpion, Gemini the Twins (with the anchoring stars, Castor and Pollux), Canis Major and Canis Minor (Orion’s two hunting dogs), Cassiopeia (a self-proclaimed beautiful queen from Greek mythology), and Pegasus the Winged Horse.

But I couldn’t settle for learning the big groups of stars; I also wanted to learn the brighter individual stars that are dotted throughout the infinity of our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

Let’s start with an incredibly simple trivia question: What is the brightest star in the Earth’s sky? The answer: our Sun, of course!

This is not really a trick question, but a way of demonstrating that our Sun is just an average star in an average part of the universe, with a set of average planets revolving around it.

But there are billions, maybe even trillions or quadrillions, of stars out there. Someone once speculated that there are as many stars in the heavens as there are grains of sand on all the beaches around the world. And those stars don’t just sit there in the sky doing nothing.

We earthlings have learned through the eons of our existence that we can use these pin-points of light to our advantage. The first thing that pops into my mind is navigation. And if you use the so-called North Star (usually called, Polaris) then we’ll always know where north is (as well as south, for that matter).


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