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When you step out at night and look up into the infinite night sky, you are greeted with the most beautiful blanket of shimmering, diamond-like specks. The twinkling stars in the sky are full of wonder and stories dating back to ancient times. Groups of stars, or constellations, are identified as animals, gods, and goddesses, characters that are important to cultures all over the world. Billions of stars make up the night sky, but only a fraction of them form the shapes of our constellations.
In this article, we have some stellar constellation facts that will leave you feeling awe-inspired at the marvel of the night sky.
Ancient civilizations worldwide observed the night skies, noting the patterns they observed. Various nations, cultures, and people have given different names to the array of constellations and different interpretations of the patterns. Early cultures associated the stars and planets seen in the night sky with gods, spirits, or animals.
One example is the constellation known as Orion. It is named after a strong hunter from Greek mythology. It is one of the most well-known constellations in the world, and many cultures have associated it with their myths, many of which revolve around a strong man or hunter.
Several of the constellations used by astronomers today were introduced by ancient civilizations such as the Sumerians, Babylonians, and Egyptians.
Hydra, named after a mythical water snake, is the largest constellation to grace our sky. It is situated in the Southwestern part of the sky and stretches over a quarter of it. Its total spans 1,303 square degrees, which is 3% of the celestial sphere. Hydra takes about 7 hours to rise into view and can be seen from many parts of the world. Hydra has 19 stars that make up the constellation, and several can be seen on a clear night with the naked eye.
Cultures have given constellations names all around the world and throughout time, but most constellations that we know came from the Greek, Roman, and ancient Middle Eastern cultures. They identified these constellations by animals, gods, and goddesses, and in many cases, they had religious significance. The 48 brightest constellations are “ancient constellations” and can usually be seen with the naked eye.
Stars move across our night sky, and constellations can be seen at sunset at different times of the year. The star patterns seen on any night are determined by the time, season, the stargazer’s latitude, and observational conditions. The rising constellations revolve around our planet and where it travels in space, so wherever you are on Earth, many constellations are hidden by our planet.
Star maps have been divided into maps representing the northern and southern hemispheres. Some constellations in the northern hemisphere are circumpolar and can be seen all around; others are only visible in certain seasons.
Stars in a constellation are different distances from Earth and are dispersed in space in three dimensions. Because we view star constellations from a distance that is so far away, to our eye, they seem close together, but they vary in size, temperature, and distance from Earth. If you had to draw a line between each star, you would notice the pattern or shape that gives it its name, and these constellations make it easy for astronomers to find their way around the sky.
The sky is adorned with billions of stars, but only a fraction of them can be seen with the naked eye and make up our constellations. All stars, however, are located within one of the 88 constellation regions. As studies progressed, astronomers were able to detect stars located around the constellations with the use of a telescope. The closer you can zoom into the night sky, the more stars you will see.
Constellations are helpful for navigation. This was especially useful in ancient times when people traveled by boat; the constellations would help guide travelers in the right direction.
Not all constellations can be identified in the same way, and some are more obvious than others. As a result, unless the conditions are ideal and your map is perfect, you may struggle to spot the constellation. Every space observatory on the planet has its own constellation map created based on what can be seen from the site at various times of the year.
The Big Dipper and Little Dipper are not constellations but asterisms. Asterisms are groups of stars forming a familiar pattern to the human eye as part of a larger group of stars. The Big Dipper is part of the Ursa Major constellation and one of the sky’s most recognizable asterisms.
It is made up of seven bright stars shaped as a plow, three of which are known as the “Dipper’s handle” and the other four as “the body.” The Little Dipper is part of the Ursa Minor constellation. It is also made up of seven stars, the most prominent being Polaris, also known as the North Star.
In earlier times, farmers would use constellations to determine the best times for growing crops. Every season had its unique constellations that were easily identifiable. Farmers used these constellations to create a calendar for all their agricultural needs and to forecast the weather for the coming seasons.
For example, the rise and fall of Taurus would indicate that it was a growing season. Taurus is a summer constellation, and most crops in the northern hemisphere were meant to be sewn in spring. Cygnus signifies spring, which is the harvest season. The rise of the constellation would indicate it was time to harvest the summer crops and plant winter ones.
The constellation Orion can be seen worldwide due to its location in the night sky. It is one of the sky’s most visible and recognizable constellations and is named after the hunter in Greek mythology. Orion is the 26th largest constellation, covering an area of 594 square degrees. It includes two of the 10 brightest stars in the sky, Rigel and Betelgeuse, and other famous stars, making it a stargazer’s dream.
While all the stars in the sky move and change position, the North Star stays in the same place. It is also known as Polaris and is part of the Ursa Minor constellation. Earth’s axis points almost directly to the North Star and doesn’t rise or set, so it appears to stay in one position.
One of the captivating qualities of stars is their magical twinkle, but stars don’t actually twinkle. The flash you see is from the Earth’s turbulent atmosphere. Light from a star must pass through several layers of rapidly varying density as it travels through the atmosphere, especially when near the horizon, which deflects the light. The light eventually reaches your eyes, but each deflection slightly changes the color and intensity.
Because our Earth orbits around the sun, the sun moves in the sky relative to other stars and does not belong to any constellation. The sun is the closest star to Earth and the only one in our solar system.
Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer, is sometimes referred to as the zodiac’s 13th or forgotten constellation. It is known as the forgotten constellation because the sun passes in front of it each year, around the 30th of November to the 18th of December.
The Ophiuchus constellations are not new and have always been a part of the sun’s path but are usually left out of astrology. In the 2nd century, the ancient astronomer Ptolemy included Ophiuchus in his list of 48 constellations, and it is still one of the 88 constellations. In Greek mythology, Ophiuchus was said to depict the god Apollo wrestling the snake guarding the Oracle of Delphi.
The Southern Cross asterism is a well-known star pattern in the southern hemisphere that dominates the Crux constellation, the smallest of the 88 modern constellations. The Southern Cross asterism has become very important in many cultures, with its five stars appearing on the flags of Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, and Brazi. It was only in 1679 that the Crux became its own constellation.
Constellations can help us navigate our way through the sky. Next time you gaze into the night sky, remember the stories and history that make our constellations known to us today. You can connect the dots with a deeper understanding and familiarity and enter the fascinating world of stargazing. We hope these facts inspire you to dive deeper into the myths and wonder of our constellations and enjoy the blanket of stars in a new light.
Featured Image Credit: Allexxandar, Shutterstock
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Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.
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