Without binoculars you can easily identify a few constellations in the night sky. Orion’s Belt is perhaps the most readily identifiable feature with its line of three bright stars: Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka. In the Northern hemisphere, Orion's Belt is best visible in the night sky during the month of January at around 9.00 pm and finding it is the easiest way to locate the constellation Orion in the sky. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that these three stars are actually near each other – they just appear that way.
Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka
Alnitak is approximately 800 light years away from Earth and, taking into consideration ultraviolet radiation, which the human eye cannot see; Alnitak is 100,000 times more luminous than the Sun. Alnilam is approximately 1340 light years away from Earth and shines with magnitude 1.70. Considering ultraviolet light, Alnilam is 375,000 times more luminous than the Sun. Mintaka is 915 light years away and shines with magnitude 2.21 and is 90,000 times more luminous than the Sun. Mintaka is a double star and both of its stars orbit around each other every 5.73 days.
Horsehead Nebula and Orion Nebula
Close to Alnitak, just to the south, is the renowned Horsehead Nebula, a so-called dark nebula that is not visible in telescopes but quite spectacular in long-exposure photographs. You can also see the Orion Nebula, a star (or stellar) nursery, which is the middle ‘star’ in the sword of Orion: the three stars located south of Orion's Belt. The star appears fuzzy to sharp-eyed observers, and the nebulosity is obvious through binoculars or a small telescope.
The Great Bear
Once you’ve memorised all that, you’ll be well on the way to impressing your friends and family but you do really need to learn about Ursa Major, 'The Great Bear' or 'Plough' constellation (also known as ‘The Big Dipper’ in the States) that is possibly the second most familiar constellation in the sky. Practically every culture and country has a different name and myths connected with this group of stars.
In Hindu astronomy, it is referred to as Sapta Rishi, meaning the ‘Seven (Great) Sages’ and throughout eastern Asia, these stars compose the Northern Dipper and are colloquially known as the ‘Seven Stars of the Northern Dipper’. In Dutch, its official name is Grote Beer (Big Bear), but often called Steelpannetje (saucepan), because of its resemblance to one. In Finland, the figure is known as Otava (salmon net) and widely used as a cultural symbol. In Hungary, it is commonly called Göncölszekér ("Göncöl's cart") after a figure in Hungarian mythology, a táltos who carried medicines in his cart that could cure any disease.
The Great Bear, with its seven stars, is significant because the North Star (Polaris), the current northern pole star on Earth, can be found using it. Polaris is part of the ‘Little Dipper’, Ursa Minor. The Great Bear is made up from seven stars: Dubhe (124 light years away), Merak (79yrs), Phecda (84yrs), Megrez (81yrs), Alioth (81yrs), Mizar (78yrs), Alkaid (101yrs). The first four of these make up the ‘pan’ or ‘body’ and the other three are the ‘handle’ or ‘tail’. If you draw an imaginary line from Merak to Dubhe and follow it on through the sky for about five times the distance between them then the bright star you find is Polaris, the Pole Star.
During the winter, stargazing in the UK will unveil five bright planets: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, if you know where to look. Confusingly this changes according to the time of the year and sometimes they are too close to the sun to observe, so you are unlikely to see all of them on a single night. Saturn is particularly spectacular with its icy rings and Jupiter's red spot is easy to see with binoculars.
In the summer months you can see the Great Cluster in Hercules, a tightly knit group of about one million stars that appear like a faint ball of light. Also visible with binoculars is the Great Galaxy in Andromeda: a huge galaxy about 2.5 million light years from earth that can be seen quite clearly with a pair of binoculars.