What is a Constellation?
Rhea and Shawna were playing when they realised the sun had set and it was getting dark. They began running towards their home when suddenly, gazing at the sky, Shawna asked Rhea if she had ever counted the stars in the sky.
Rhea thought, that was an exciting thing to do, and so they both stopped midway looking in to the night sky, twinkling and glittering with hundreds and thousands of stars.
While they were trying to count the stars, Rhea showed Shawna a group of stars that seemed to form a pattern and looked like the shape of a bear. They began chuckling and started figuring out the various shapes they felt the group of stars made.
What are Constellations?
They are constellations. Constellations are patterns formed by groups of stars.
Thousands of years ago, people often spent time gazing at the stars, watching them at night as they lived like wanderers and were on the move all the time.
These stars to them seemed to be of different shapes. In these groups, people often saw strange shapes of animals, and some even believed they saw the shapes of their gods or heroes.
What are Constellations used for?
In fact, before the compass was invented, these constellations worked as guidelines for sailors and travellers to find their way.
North Star or Pole Star or Dhruv Tara
The North Star also known as the Pole Star or Dhruv Tara was very helpful to explorers. Ancient people used constellations as a calendar. They realised that certain constellations seemed to move as the seasons changed.
Do these Constellations really move?
No, it is not the constellations that are moving. It is the movement of the earth which seems to change the position of these constellations. It is said that there are around 88 constellations that can be seen during different times in the year.
Astronomers found it easier to identify the constellations than individual stars and thus they began naming the constellations.
The Greeks and Romans named most of the constellations as long back as over 4000 years.
We still use some of the same names.
Planisphere (Star Chart)
There is a star chart called the ‘Planisphere’, which can be adjusted to show which stars appear in the sky on any night in the year.
Zodiac Signs based on Constellations
The zodiac signs we have are the names of some of the constellations. As the earth orbits the sun, these different constellations are seen at different times in the year.
Let us look at some of the well – known constellations.
Ursa Major or The Great Bear
This constellation is noted to circle the northern sky all year through and its position changes during different seasons.
The Myths of Ursa Major, The Great Bear
It is believed that Zeus, the Greek God was jealous of a woman and her son and turned them into bears. He then cast the Great Bear and the Little Bear in the sky. The Little Bear is also known as Ursa Minor.
Another story says that the Greek God, Zeus, was in love with a woman, Callisto, Zeus’s wife out of jealousy tried to hurt Callisto. Zeus to save Callisto from being harmed, turned her into a bear and placed her high up in the stars.
The Great Bear has seven stars that make up its back and tail. These seven stars look like a long handled ladle and is known as the Big Dipper. At the end of the dipper bowl we see two stars that are referred to as pointer stars as they point towards an important star called the North Star.
- This constellation is easy to find.
- The story behind this constellation is that Cassiopeia was a famous queen.
- She was known for her beauty and was boastful about her beauty as compared to the sea nymphs. This made the sea God angry and in order to punish her he placed Cassiopeia amongst the stars.
- If you wish to see this constellation, then this is what you need to do.
- Look for the Big Dipper, draw an imaginary line going through the pointer stars in the Big Dipper to the North Star in the Little Bear and extend the line further till you reach the next five stars that resemble a flattened ‘m’ or ‘w’.
Leo – The Lion
- Leo is a spring constellation. It is said that Leo was a fierce man- eating lion. Hercules a hero, the son of Zeus was sent to kill the lion with his bare hands. Hercules trapped the lion in a cave and wrapped his mighty arms around, strangling Leo. Leo was then placed by Zeus among the stars. If you look closely, you will see the constellations Cannis Minor ( Little Dog), Cancer ( crab).
Pegasus – The Winged Horse
- The constellation Pegasus consists of fourteen stars. In the centre there is a group of four stars called the Great Square, representing the body of a horse.
- Pegasus was a beautiful white horse with magic wings. The remaining ten stars form the neck, head and front legs of the horse.
Orion – The Hunter
- Orion was a giant hunter who was stung by a scorpion.
Orion was thereafter placed as a constellation.
If you look closely to the left of the Orion there is a constellation called the Cannis Major or the Big Dog, Orion’s faithful dog.
Taurus – The Bull
- Zeus, the Greek God once changed himself in to a bull named Taurus, to please the princess Europa, who loved all kinds of animals. Taurus jumped in to the sea with the princess on his back.
- This constellation shows stars in a pattern with only the head and top part of the bull’s body showing.
There are many more constellations that are well known like Cygnus- the Swan, Centaur – a mythical creature half horse and half man, Scorpion, Maiden, Scales, Water Monster etc.
You can see constellations in a planetarium.
A planetarium is a place where planets and stars are projected on the inside of a dome.
It is a wonderful experience and feels like you are actually gazing at the night sky and moving in space.
For more interesting Geography articles and videos, visit our Geography for Kids category.