How I charted my progress in learning the constellations
By Armando Caussade
I am opening this topic to see if there is anyone in the Cloudy Nights forums that has been recording their progress in learning the constellations, like I did 35 years ago. But I will first share my own story of surveying the 84 constellations that are visible from my latitude of 18 degrees north, a project that I started back in 1983—when I was 12 years of age—and carefully documented over two years.
The charts that I have posted below illustrate the stages that I went through during my journey in learning the constellations, which spanned from December 1983 to December 1985. The maps themselves are photocopies that I made in 1984 from an old reference book found on my school library, but the handwritten dates were added by me, with formatting in Spanish. I recently came over these copies after sifting through an old file box—as part of a project to digitize and preserve old personal documents—and following some computer work was able to successfully clean them and restore their original appearance. Before going any further, I would like to affirm my belief that both the original photocopies as well as the derivative work that I present here, are covered under the fair use doctrine.
The charts alone do not tell the whole story, however. Lacking any labels other than constellation names, these maps were used only to chart my progress, with my primary study reference being the 14 hand-drawn charts by none other than the English astronomer Patrick Moore (1923–2012). His cartography appears throughout all editions of his Amateur Astronomy / The Amateur Astronomer book, being included as Appendix XXVII in the 6th edition from 1968 that I used at the time, a text that—as explained in a previous post, available here—I did not actually own, but repeatedly kept borrowing from the library.
By March 1984 I had become a subscriber to Sky & Telescope magazine, which provided multi-horizon maps drawn by George Lovi (1939–1993) as a two-page spread on each monthly issue, and whose 20-degree horizon was a good fit to my latitude of 18 degrees. The cartography was spectacular, and I was saddened when the magazine dropped Lovi's charts in 1991, although they would be reprinted in 1995 as a book-length work entitled Monthly Sky Charts. But in spite of my tremendous regard for Lovi's work, I preferred the maps from Moore because of their larger scale and accompanying descriptions.
I started teaching myself the constellations in December 1983, alone in my suburban backyard under the balmy weather and transparent night skies of the Caribbean winter, with the help of the 14 star charts from Moore and a red flashlight. With no local astronomy groups to join (at that time, back in 1983) and no relevant community courses to enroll with, I was all by myself, with the school library as my only source. A 50-millimeter Sears-branded refractor that opportunely showed up for Christmas was like a godsend, proving useful not only for the Moon and planets, but also for a number of deep-sky objects that Moore went on to discuss—with much erudition—in the notes that supplemented his charts.
Chart #1 from December 24, 1983, shows the results of my work during that first month of regular stargazing. Orion was the first constellation that I unambiguously identified, with the Orion Nebula and the nearby Pleiades cluster being the first deep-sky objects that I ever managed to locate. Using Orion as a landmark I proceeded to survey and study the surrounding constellations, particularly those like Taurus and Gemini which possess first-magnitude stars. The chart also displays my familiarity with the extreme northern end of the constellation Eridanus, marked in the sky by the third-magnitude star Beta Eridani, which at the time I mistakenly considered as belonging to Orion. Limited visibility would keep the southernmost parts of Canis Major out of my reach for yet another month, while fainter neighboring constellations such as Lepus and Monoceros would not begin catching my interest until later on.
Chart #2 from March 2, 1984, shows how my knowledge of the skies spread eastwards from Orion and into the spring constellations, including major ones such as Leo and Ursa Major, together with the westernmost part of Hydra, and even into the south with groups such as Puppis, Vela and Carina—which together comprised the ancient superconstellation of Argo Navis. Isolated spring stars and asterisms are also represented, such as Arcturus, Spica, Alpha and Beta Centauri and the Southern Cross. Of interest here is my early awareness of summer groups such as Scorpius and Sagittarius, whose invisibility during evening hours in March, necessarily points to pre-dawn observations. Surprisingly, I found it possible to advance westwards from Orion, into autumn constellations such as Perseus and Cassiopeia.
Chart #3 from April 20, 1984, reveals swift progress, with half of the accessible skies from my latitude now surveyed after only four months of skywatching. This is a significant achievement, considering that my criteria for "pocketing" new constellations comprised not only an initial sighting, but also subsequent study and memorization. By this time I had already learned the entire spring sky, with the exception of inconspicuous groups such as Leo Minor and Coma Berenices, plus the southern constellation Lupus and the easternmost part of Hydra. The inclusion of summer stars such as Vega, Altair and Deneb in this chart from mid-spring, again indicates pre-dawn observations. Yet, my knowledge of Ursa Minor remained incomplete—and limited to its three brightest stars—for the simple reason that despite its year-round visibility, this group never rises much above the horizon as seen from my latitude.
Chart #4 from December 29, 1984, shows the result after a full year of study. Moving eastwards from Orion I was able to complete a 360-degree cycle, scanning the entire northern celestial hemisphere with the exception of only four groups whose stars are no brighter than the fourth magnitude: Leo Minor, Coma Berenices, Lacerta and Pisces. From the southern skies, I was missing the obscure constellation Sculptor, as well as the southern part of Cetus that I had somehow overseen during the previous autumn season. A circle with an approximate radius of 36 degrees around the south celestial pole also remained, due to the 18-degree circumpolar "zone of avoidance" resulting from my latitude, plus an additional outer radius of stars that—despite theoretical visibility—never rise much above my southern horizon.
Chart #5 from December 31, 1985, shows further refinements of my all-sky survey, after an additional year of work. Gone are the omissions from the northern celestial hemisphere—which I had now learned in its entirety—plus the inexplicable lapse of southern Cetus from the year before. In 1985, I also undertook the challenge of reducing the 36-degree circle in the southern hemisphere to a radius of 24 degrees, successfully achieving this goal after numerous nights of meticulously-planned observations.
The last chart is a key to the 14 maps by Moore, as per the 6th edition of Amateur Astronomy that I used (later editions would go on to introduce changes). I drew this myself, of course by hand, the way things were done before the widespread availability of personal computers. To my surprise, this showed that a few areas of the celestial sphere had been left uncharted by Moore, albeit all were uninteresting regions.
Despite my entrenched habit of recording happenings and milestones, I am still amazed that I kept such detailed records of my progress with the constellations. Has anyone kept similar records? How many constellations have you learned to identify? Is there a particular set of star charts that you found useful? How long did it take you to learn the entire sky? I would be delighted to hear your experience.
Image credit: Original charts by J. Hedley Robinson (1905–1991), from "Astronomy Data Book" (1972).
Edited by caussade, 19 April 2020 - 10:24 AM.