The Farmers’ Almanac Night Sky Guide tells you how to find the Big Dipper, North Star, and every month’s brightest stars. Learn about stargazing and how to “star hop” by locating one star with another! Plus, plan ahead with our list of Top Sky Events 2024. Have questions? Share with your community here in the comments below. Our expert astronomers will give you personalized answers!
What Is Stargazing?
Do you ever stop and gaze up on a clear night to see the bright stars above you? If so, you are a stargazer! Technically, the term stargazing applies to any celestial observation activity—whether you are gazing upon stars, meteor showers, or bright planets, etc.
Related: Visible Planets Guide
Stargazing connects you with nature, inspires adventure, and brings an important element of awe into your life. Recognizing the depth of the universe may help you gain more perspective to realize that big problems are much smaller than they appear to be. Recent studies also suggest that stargazing boosts creativity and may even help you sleep better at night.
3 ways to increase your chances of seeing bright stars
- Stargaze on nights around a New Moon. Learn why!
- Find a “dark sky” away from city lights.
- Check your local weather forecast for clear skies.
Related: 10 Brightest Stars
What Is Star Hopping?
Star hopping is using one recognizable star or constellation to find another! For instance, using the “pointer stars” of the Big Dipper to locate the North Star. See below!
The Big Dipper
As you embark on your stargazing journey, Farmers’ Almanac suggests you begin by finding the Big Dipper.
What is special about the Big Dipper?
The Big Dipper is one of the easiest star patterns to recognize in the night sky. The seven stars of the Big Dipper are visible on almost every clear night in the Northern Hemisphere.
How do you locate the Big Dipper?
If you know where the Sun tends to set on the horizon, look a bit further to the right at night. (This is generally the north direction.)
Over the course of the year, the Big Dipper rotates counterclockwise around the North Star. (See below.) In the fall, the Big Dipper appears low on the horizon in its most recognizable ladle-like orientation, as if it were carrying liquid. During the winter months it tips upward. In the spring, the ladle appears high above the horizon and completely upside down—which is a fun way to think of why we get spring showers! (The Big Dipper is dumping its liquid out.) Some astronomers use the “spring up, fall down” to remember the Big Dipper’s position in the sky through the seasons.
Fun fact: The Big Dipper is an asterism, not an official constellation itself. The Big Dipper is however a part of a larger constellation, Ursa Major (the Great Bear).
Related: Constellations vs. Asterisms
Now that you have found the Big Dipper, you may locate the North Star!
The North Star
How do you find the North Star?
Finding the North Star is easy on any clear night. Start by finding the Big Dipper. (See above.) The two stars on the end of the Dipper’s “cup” point toward Polaris. If you open your hand and pretend to place your pinky finger in the cup, your thumb will show you where the North Star is.
Note: During fall nights, the Big Dipper may be too low on the northern horizon to see. On these occasions, you may use a nearby “w” shaped constellation called Cassiopeia to locate the North Star. It’s a bit harder to describe, so bear with us: First, draw an imaginary line to connect the tips of the “w” to make a “b” shape. Then draw a second line at a right angle to the first (perpendicular) pointing in the same direction as the center of the constellation to arrive at the North Star. (Let us know if you have any questions about this!)
What is so special about the North Star?
Most stars seem to travel a great distance over the course of the night, but Polaris, the North Star, is different. Because Polaris is located very close to the north celestial pole, it stays in the same place in the sky: due north.
Related: How Do Stars Move Across The Sky?
North Star Navigation
Ancient sailors used the North Star as a compass to navigate. For this reason, the expression “North Star” is used to signify direction in one’s life and a standard for excellence. If someone refers to you as their North Star, it means you help them find their way.
Does the North Star always point north?
During our lifetime, Polaris will always point north. However in approximately 13,000 years, due to the Earth’s wobble effect, Polaris will eventually appear to move away from the pole. (At this point Vega will become the North Star.) But Polaris will become the North Star again in 26,000 years.
The Little Dipper
What is the difference between the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper?
The Big Dipper belongs to the constellation Ursa Major (the Great Bear) and the Little Dipper is part of the constellation Ursa Minor (the Little Bear).
How do you locate the Little Dipper?
The stars of the Little Dipper are much fainter than those of the Big Dipper. For this reason, it is much easier to find the Big Dipper. When the Big Dipper is right-side up, the Little Dipper is upside down and vice versa. Their handles extend in opposite directions.
The North Star marks the final star of the Little Dipper’s handle. See if you can “star hop” to locate the Little Dipper—even if it’s tough to see its muted stars!
The spiritual meaning of the Big Dipper, Little Dipper
The yin-yang orientation of the Big Dipper-Little Dipper is believed to signify balance and the connection between mother and child.
Other Recognizable Stars
Besides the North Star, Big Dipper, and Little Dipper, there are several other star patterns that appear throughout the year, regardless of the season. Here are a few:
- Cassiopeia, the vain Queen
- Cepheus, the Whale
- Draco, the Dragon
Would you like to know more information about any of these constellations—how to locate them or what they symbolize? Share your thoughts and questions in the comments section!
Farmers’ Almanac Night Sky Guide
Since 1818, the Farmers’ Almanac has been providing astronomical information and stargazing guides. Ahead are links to sky guides with our recommendations for exciting upcoming events. Bookmark this page and check back each month for updates!
February Night Sky Guide 2024
February’s night sky has many highlights, including a celestial “kiss” on Valentine’s Day between Jupiter and the crescent Moon, a remarkable pairing of Venus and Mars later in the month, the Full Snow Moon, and many other bright sights! Plan your stargazing activities this month with our helpful calendar of February 2024 sky events.
Share your love of stargazing with your family and friends this year! Don’t miss our growing Starry Nights Gift Guide—gifts for night sky lovers of every age and stage!
Plan Ahead: Top Sky Events 2024
April 8 — The Great Solar Eclipse 2024
Don’t miss this super rare sight! In your town in the path of totality? Solar Eclipse 2024 locations!
July 13 — Moon & Spica Play “Hide-and-Seek”
The first Quarter Moon crosses in front of the bright blue star, Spica, for all of North America. Look west/southwest. Times: Eastern US: 11:20 pm EDT, Western US: 8:45 pm PDT.
August 11-12 — Catch A Shooting Star!
This year will be an excellent one to watch for the peak of the famous Perseid Meteor Shower. (Overnight hours are best.)
Related: Meteor Shower Calendar
August 14 — Closest Planet Alignment in 2024
In the east-northeast sky any time after 1:30 a.m., there will be an exceedingly close pairing (0.3°) of Jupiter and Mars.
September 17 — A “Dent” in the Moon
From 10:12-11:16 p.m. EDT, look up! The Full Harvest Moon will undergo a partial lunar eclipse.
Related: Full Moon Calendar
September 28 — The Next Great “Daytime” Comet
The comet Tsuchinshan–ATLAS will pass 36 million miles from the Sun, and two weeks later, will come within 44 million miles of the Earth.
There is a chance that this comet could become bright enough to be seen with the naked eye low in the west-southwest sky one to three hours after sunset. Learn more!
November 27 — Spica “Déjà Vu”
Once again, the Moon will hide Spica during the morning hours. This time, the Moon will be a slender crescent, and Spica will disappear along the Moon’s bright edge. Look southeast at 5:30 am EST/4:15 am PST.
Night Sky Guide Archives
Visible Planets Guide
Do you see a very bright star in the night sky? It may be a planet! Learn when to look for Venus, Jupiter, and more in our Visible Planets Guide.
Meteor Shower Calendar
When was the last time you saw a shooting star? Learn when your best chances are in our popular Meteor Shower Calendar.
Join The Discussion
Were you able to locate the North Star using the Big Dipper?
What is your favorite star or constellation in the northern sky?
Which Farmers’ Almanac sky guide is your favorite? (Monthly/Seasonal Guides, Visible Planets, or Meteor Showers)
Share your experience, photos, and questions in the comments below!