How to navigate the night sky like a pro

The Eyeopener's Starman Don Hladiuk weighs in with a few helpful hints for how to gaze up at the night sky and pick out a few intriguing constellations.

Learn to identify constellations and amaze friends by 'predicting' Iridium flares

Don Hladiuk advises aspiring stargazers to start with the Big Dipper, and work from there. (Submitted by Don Hladiuk)

From the sounds of it, the secret code to becoming the coolest person around the campfire this summer might be the words "Arc to Arcturus and Spike to Spica."

No, that's not a chant to get Thor's hammer to descend from Asgard, although it definitely has a Norse mythological ring to it.

It's actually a catch phrase used by astronomers to describe a pattern of stars that Don Hladiuk, a.k.a. the Starman, shared with listeners Monday on the Calgary Eyeopener.

Hladiuk shared a few insider astronomer tips with host David Gray about how to effortlessly impress your night sky watching colleagues, friends and family members by pointing out a number of the highest-profile constellations in the sky.

Impress your friends by knowing when the next waxing crescent moon will be in Calgary (psst... between June 15-19). Eyeopener star expert Don Hladiuk says it will also be a great photo opportunity. (Don Hladiuk)

Start with the Big Dipper

The main challenge? Spotting the brightest, most familiar constellation of them all, the Big Dipper.

"At this time of year, it's easy. It is straight up overhead," Hladiuk said. "Beautiful to find."

Once you've located the Big Dipper, you're on your way to navigating the stars like a pro.

By spotting the Big Dipper, an amateur stargazer can easily spot a number of other constellations, says CBC Radio astronomy expert Don Hladiuk on The Eyeopener. (Don Hladiuk)

"The Big Dipper can be used to find so many other constellations. So if you use the two stars at the end of the bowl, and go northwards, you'll find Polaris —  the North Star," he said.

"If you imagine the bowl full of water, and you drilled a hole, leaking out the bottom, heading south, you're going to come across Leo the Lion, which is easy to find because it's a big backwards question mark, with a bright star Regulus as the dot — and over to the left, or a little  bit to the east, is a right angle triangle marking the hindquarters. That's Leo the Lion!"

Leo the Lion is known as one of the earliest recognized constellations. (Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s Calgary Centre)

'Arc to Arcturus and Spike to Spica'

That's not all, either, said Hladiuk.

"If you go back to the Big Dipper and use the curve of the handle, and you can arc all the way down to a bright orange star called Arcturus in the constellation of Bootes, 'the herdsman.'"

Boötes, a constellation in the northern sky, comes from a Greek word meaning "herdsman" or "plowman." (Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s Calgary Centre)

But not everyone sees the constellation as a herdsman, and Hladiuk is one of them.

"I do not see a herdsman," he said. "It looks more to me like a giant ice cream cone in the sky or perhaps a big kite."

"Astronomers have a saying," he added. "You arc toward Arcturus and drive a spike to Spica. So if you continue a line straight down, you find a bright blue star, which is Spica in the constellation of Virgo."

Virgo is a constellation that sits between Leo to the west and Libra to the east, and is the second-largest constellation in the sky. (Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s Calgary Centre)

The Iridium Flare

And every once in a while, a stargazer might become entranced by what appears to be a slow-moving, faint star that grows suddenly bright.

It turns out that what you're gazing up at is an Iridium flare — that's when the antennas of an Iridium communications satellite reflect sunlight back to Earth. It's also known as satellite glint.

An Iridium flare moves across the night sky. (Don Hladiuk)

For the status-conscious stargazer looking to make an impression, Hladiuk recommends bringing your smartphone to your viewing post.

"Go to," he said, "Change your location to Calgary, go down the list, you'll see Iridium flares, click on it and it will give you a series of dates and times. You're looking for Iridium flares that are at least -4 or higher — something as bright as Venus or even brighter."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.


Stephen Hunt

Digital Writer

Stephen Hunt is a digital writer at the CBC in Calgary. Email: