Lessons from the Moon: The New Moon

Remember how our moon phases work. At this point in its orbit around the earth the moon is in such a position that all of the light of the sun is reflected away from the earth and back towards the sun. In addition, the moon rises with the sun and sets with the sun. Tomorrow, if you are sharp, you can see the tiny sliver of the waxing crescent just after sunset, at about 8:45 here on the Texas coast.  The moon itself will set at about 9:10.

I always loved the new moon as a kid. When I was about 7 to 8 years old I lived in Phoenix, Arizona. This was a long time ago, in 1966, and Phoenix was still a small city sitting in the middle of a vast desert. On dark nights my my family, mom, dad and me, would load up in the car and go for a ride in the desert. We would get away from city lights and lay on the hood of the old car and look at the night sky. My dad would point out all the constellations to me and tell me stories. He would point out Orion, his club, and sheild, and tell me the story about how Scorpio, the scorpion killed Orion and that is why it looks like Orion is always running ahead of Scorpio and why they are never in the sky at the same time. Dad would point out Cassiopeia, the big W in the sky.  I learned about the Big Dipper also called Ursa Major (the great bear) and the Little Dipper which is called Ursa Minor, the little bear and how to find the North Star in his tail.

People everywhere like looking at the night sky. The constellations above we described by the Greeks and were based on the mythology they had to explain why things happened. The ancient Greek people are not the only people who had stories to tell about the night sky.

  • Slaves trying to escape north, to freedom, called the big dipper “the drinking gourd” and said if they followed the stars to the north they would reach freedom. Many did.
  • The Inuit say the bright W that we call Cassiopeia is a set of steps cut into the ice that by climbing you can reach the sky.
  • Another of my favorite constellations is Cygnus the swan. But to some North American First Nations people Cygnus is a snow goose. Three hunters saw the goose swimming on a lake and took aim to kill it for a meal. The goose took flight but it was too late and it fell into the lake. The hunters searched long and hard for the goose, because all life is sacred and not to be wasted, but they could not find the animal. They searched until night fell and stars were reflected in the water. The hunters looked up and there, soaring through the night sky was the snow goose.

In the modern age it is sometimes difficult to see many stars, especially if you live in a big city. The reason it that all of the light from the city is reflected back from the dust, moisture and pollution that is found in the sky. This is called light pollution.  Even though it is difficult, it is not impossible. One tool that city star gazers, yes they exist, use are binoculars. A pair of 7×25 power will provide enough magnification to help you see past the glare of the street lights and into sections of the sky. New York, LA, Chicago, and nearly every other major metropolitan area in the US have clubs of people who like to watch the night sky, even in the city.

The reason I am stressing the urban in this post is because many urban dwellers I have spoken to express frustration at the difficulty in finding access and opportunities to be involved in nature. It is a passion of mine to make sure that I remember that nature is not “out there, somewhere”. Nature needs to be where we live. When I find organizations like NASA’s Night Skies Network, providing support to groups that invite the amateur to experience nature in places where it can be hard to do so, I am all about promoting them.

To find the Big Dipper, (in Europe the Plough)  stand facing north and look up into the night sky. There you should find a group of seven stars that seem to form a ladle. This is the Big Dipper.

Copyright Wikipedia

Once you have found the Big Dipper, follow the two stars in the part of the cup furthest from the handle in a straight line. This should lead you to the star Polaris also called the North Star. The North Star is at the tip of the handle of the Little Dipper.

Copyright Wikipedia

The shape of the Little Dipper:

copyright Wikipedia

Cassiopeia is opposite the Big Dipper in the sky. If the Big Dipper is in the northern sky look high in the southern sky for a large W. This is said to be the throne of Cassiopeia, the vain queen of Greek myth, or the Ice Steps of Inuit lore.

copyright: Wikipedia

Using the star for July, can you find Cygnus? What other constellations can you find?

copyright: KidsCosmos

I hope you have fun watching the stars during the dark of the moon. I would love to hear from you about your experiences and the stories you told. I welcome comments that help those in other parts of the world find constellations related to their place because connecting to nature is all about connecting to your home place.


  • Night Science for Kids, Terry Krautwurst, Lark Books, 2006
  • Constellations: A glow in the dark guide to the night sky, Chris Sasaki, Sterling Publishing Co. , 2006
  • Wikipedia for some of the star maps
  • Kids Kosmos for the Stars of July map. Go there for more activities and a larger version of the map. I used this one because it was the simplest but there are many star maps available on line.
  • Night Sky Network for information about urban star gazing.

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