Find Constellations With This Simple Star Chart

Astronomical Telescope Starry night. Milky Way Galaxy.

Find Constellations With This Simple Star Chart

Key Points

  • A Start Chart is a graphical representation of the night sky.
  • Knowing the approximate size of stars and constellations can help in locating them.
  • Star Charts help identify stars, constellations, planets, galaxies, and deep-space objects.
  • The North Star (Polaris) is a stationary reference point used for navigation.

What is a Star Chart

  • Displays the positions of stars and constellations and identifies their location based on date, time, and place.
  • Star Charts are also known as celestial maps or sky charts.
  • The first star chart is credited to Hipparchus, the creator of trigonometry. It’s believed that Hipparchus mapped the stars approximately two thousand years ago (129 BC.).

Preparing to Use a Star Chart

If you’re going to use a Star Chart, you’ll need to do a little preparation to prepare for your big night out in the backyard.

Obtaining a Star Chart: Print or Purchase

It may say a tad boring, but we recommend printing (on paper!) a star chart before you head out to the backyard for star gazing. Yes, you certainly can (and we have) used a cell phone, laptop, or iPad to view a start chart. Truth be told, most electronic display screens will cause your pupils to dilate from the brightness. Dilated pupils allow less light into your eye, so you’ll detect fewer stars.

If you have a paper printout, a book (that’s our favorite Night Sky Book!), or a spinning laminated map (best), you’ll need to be able to see it in the dark. You can either make your own red light flashlight or snag one online.

Ahoy Matey!

All is not lost if you don’t have a paper copy of a star chart. You can use a digital display but try (no laughter!) to only use one eye. Yes, pretend you’re a pirate and can only open one eye to look at the display. When you start looking at the night skies, use the other eye. Within a few minutes, the eye you used to look at the bright screen will dilate to the same level as the other eye.

Everything is moving!

It’s essential to understand that the Earth is rotating on its axis while orbiting around the sun. The position of stars, constellations, and planets will appear in different locations throughout the night and throughout the year.

Simple Star Chart
A time-lapsed image of the North Star centered above a Juniper Tree.

©Tyler Hulett/Shutterstock.com

The image above is a time-lapse photo of the North Star (Polaris). Do you see the circular star “trails?” The very center of the stars is Polaris (North Star.) It’s a great reference point. Sailors have used Polaris for thousands of years because it seems stationary (it’s actually moving in a tiny circle) and is used as a navigation aid.

Locating the North Star

Start by aiming your nose toward the North Star Polaris. Need help to find it? Here’s a quick breakdown. 

Simple Star Chart
The location of Polaris.

©NASA – License

  1. Locate the Big Dipper (Ursa Major)
  2. Draw an imaginary line from the far side of the Big Dippers cup to the “tail” of the Little Dippers (Ursa Minor) handle.
  3. The tip of the Little Dippers handle is Polaris, the North Star.
  4. Orient your body so that you’re facing Polaris. You’re now facing North.

How to Use a Star Chart

  • Now that you’re facing North hold the map above your head (straight up!). Let’s look at the chart below.
Simple Star Chart
High-detailed sky map of the Northern Hemisphere with names of stars and constellations.


  • Orient the chart to match the orientation of the Big Dipper (Ursla Major.)
  • Rotate the chart so that the current month of the year faces North.
    • Pro Tip: There’s a lot to be said for planispheres that spin on a central axis; you’ll be able to adjust the planisphere based on the month and day. When printing out the chart above, you’re the central axis, and you’ll rotate the chart. As you turn the chart, you’re rotating seasons of the year.
  • Now that you’ve found Polaris and orientated the map, it’s time to find a few constellations!

Size Matters-Putting Your Hands to Good Use

One part of the equation is knowing where to look for stars, constellations, and galaxies. A rough approximation of their size will help you understand what size to expect.  

  • Hold your arm out at shoulder height and raise your right hand. Make a thumbs up. The width of your thumb is approximately two degrees.
  • Hold your arm out at shoulder height and raise your right hand. Make a fist, knuckles down, with the thumb tucked into your palm. The measured distance is approximately ten degrees.
  • Hold your arm out at shoulder height and raise your left hand. Spread your fingers out. The measured distance is approximately twenty degrees.
ObjectDegree (Rough size approximation)
Spread Fingers (one hand)20°
Spread Fingers (both hands)40°

Locating Stars and Constellations

The key to locating constellations is first to find nearby reference stars. The shaded area of the chart displays the Milky Way. Each “dot” represents a star. The larger the dot, the brighter the star. Start your exploration with bright stars and the constellations near them.

Use the size chart above to help determine if you’re looking at the right “size” area. It’s an approximate measurement. A little bigger or smaller than our example is still OK. (If you have tiny baby hands, our method might not work well for you!)

Now that we have a rough approximation of size let’s find a few constellations! We’ve broken out a few significant constellations based on the months of the year.

ObjectSizeWhereBest View
Canis MajorSpread FingersSirusJan-Feb
CancerSpread Fingers Beehive ClusterMar-Apr
Coma BerenicesFistNorth of VirgoMay-Jun
Corona BorealisFistBetween Boots & HerculesJun-Jul
CapricornusSpread FingersSE QuadrantAug-Sep
AquariusBoth handsS of PegasusSep-Oct
AndromedaFistNE of PegasusOct-Nov
CamelopardalisSpread FingersBetween Ursa Major and MinorDec-Jan

Happy star gazing!

  1. National Geographic Pocket Guide to the Night Sky of North America
    • Basic guide to the solar system
    • Lots of photographs, illustrations, and graphics
    • Interesting facts and tips
    • Great start to astronomy
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    11/27/2023 06:51 am GMT
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    • Reverse side contains useful information
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    11/27/2023 02:56 pm GMT
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    11/27/2023 02:56 pm GMT

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a star chart?

Star Charts are used to locate and identify stars, galaxies, and constellations. Sailors have used the stars for navigation for thousands of years. Today we use star charts to aid our exploration of the night skies.

What is the most straightforward star to identify?

The Big Dipper (Ursa Major) is easily one of the most identifiable patterns of stars. The North Star (Polaris) is also reasonably easy to recognize since it doesn’t move very much in the night skies.

What is an Ecliptic?

An ecliptic is the path of the sun throughout the year. As the sun’s course changes, so does our view of the night skies. We’ll notice the small changes daily, but differences are more easily noticed on a seasonal basis.

Is the North Star the brightest in the sky?

Nope, not even close! The North Star is the 44th brightest star in the night skies. The brightest star in the skies is Sirius. To detect it, locate Orion’s belt and look down toward the Eastern Horizon.

What is the best free stargazing app?

It’s hard not to love the free stargazing apps for your cellphone. Forget about trying to spin a wheel or rotate a paper map. Turn your cell phone on and go to it. We use Night Sky (iOS) and really like it. Star Tracker (iOS and Android) and SkySafari (iOS) will also do the trick. Download NASA (iOS and Android) to see all the latest images.

What kind of information will I receive from a star chart?

A star chart is laid out on a grid. The outer edges of the grid contain numbers and (sometimes) months of the year. The chart will aid you in locating stars, galaxies, and constellations. You’ll first orient yourself and the map to the North Star (Polaris), adjust the map for the season or month of the year and then begin your exploration. Once you find a bright star, you’ll use it as a reference to locate other celestial bodies.

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