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Sky Tellers - Constellations
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About ConstellationsWhat's a constellation?
A constellation is a group of stars that appears to form a pattern or picture like Orion the Great Hunter, Leo the Lion, or Taurus the Bull. Constellations are easily recognizable patterns that help people orient themselves using the night sky. There are 88 “official” constellations.Are the stars in a constellation near each other?
Not necessarily. Each constellation is a collection of stars that are distributed in space in three dimensions – the stars are all different distances from Earth. The stars in a constellation appear to be in the same plane because we are viewing them from very, very, far away. Stars vary greatly in size, distance from Earth, and temperature. Dimmer stars may be smaller, farther away, or cooler than brighter stars. By the same token, the brightest stars are not necessarily the closest. Of the stars in Cygnus, the swan, the faintest star is the closest and the brightest star is the farthest!How are constellations named?
Most of the constellation names we know came from the ancient Middle Eastern, Greek, and Roman cultures. They identified clusters of stars as gods, goddesses, animals, and objects of their stories. It is important to understand that these were not the only cultures populating the night sky with characters important to their lives. Cultures all over the world and throughout time — Native American, Asian, and African — have made pictures with those same stars. In some cases the constellations may have had ceremonial or religious significance. In other cases, the star groupings helped to mark the passage of time between planting and harvesting. There are 48 “ancient” constellations and they are the brightest groupings of stars – those observed easily by the unaided eye. There actually are 50 “ancient” constellations; astronomers divided one of the constellations (Argo) into 3 parts.
“Modern” constellations — like the Peacock, Telescope, and Giraffe — were identified by later astronomers of the 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s who used telescopes and who were able to observe the night sky in the southern hemisphere. These scientists “connected” the dimmer stars between the ancient constellations. There are 38 modern constellations.
In 1930 the International Astronomical Union officially listed 88 modern and ancient constellations (one of the ancient constellations was divided into 3 parts) and drew a boundary around each. The boundary edges meet, dividing the imaginary sphere — the celestial sphere — surrounding Earth into 88 pieces. Astronomers consider any star within a constellation boundary to be part of that constellation, even if it is not part of the actual picture.
Are all stars part of a constellation?
No, there are billions of stars, and only a fraction of them make up the shapes of our constellations — these are the stars that are easily seen with the unaided eye. Ancient observers connected these stars into the star pictures.
All stars, however, fall within the boundaries of one of the 88 constellation regions. As astronomers studied the night sky with modern telescopes, they were able to discern stars in the dark spaces around the constellations — stars that were not part of the original star pictures. You can see some of these stars by observing the sky on a dark night. If you look at the sky with binoculars, you will see even more stars. If you have a telescope, you will see even more! All the stars you see belong to one special group of stars — the stars in our own galaxy, the Milky Way.How are stars and other objects in the sky named and located?
Hundreds of the brightest stars, those visible with the unaided eye, were given names in ancient times. These include Eltanin of Draco, the Dragon, and Vega in Lyra, the Lyre. Many of these stars have multiple names, having been observed by different cultures.
Today stars are named by their coordinates on the celestial sphere. This is an imaginary sphere surrounding Earth. Earth’s north and south poles can be extended in space to this sphere, marking the north and south celestial poles, the poles around which the sphere spins. Polaris marks the intersection of the extended north pole and the sphere. Earth’s equator, extended into space, intersects the sphere at the celestial equator, dividing it into northern and southern hemispheres. All stars and objects in space, such as constellations, can be mapped relative to the poles and equator of the celestial sphere. Their position north or south of the celestial equator — essentially their latitude — is called “declination.” Their position east or west essentially is their longitude, or right ascension, measured in hours, minutes, and seconds. On Earth, we measure our longitude east or west from Greenwich, England; right ascension on the celestial sphere is measured from the intersection of the ecliptic (plane of Earth’s orbit) and the celestial equator.
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