Friday, 18 March 2011

What are Constellations?

Astronomy 2:  Constellations

Constellations are man-made dot-to-dot pictures in the night sky, connecting the stars in the sky into pictures of people, animals and other objects.  The stars we see were grouped into constellations by the Greeks, who made up stories about their gods and then used the characters from these stories as the basis for grouping stars together.  For example, a group of stars might look like two people standing side by side, and so they'd be identified as twins.

The stars that we group into constellations are not always close together in space.  Although two stars might look close together, one could be considerably further away than the other, but might seem to be next to each other because we have no sense of perspective in space.  We can't tell if one star is closer to us than another - and brightness is no help either.  A star that looks bright might be close to us, but a star brighter might be an extremely bright star that's actually further away.

Anyway, treating the stars as points on a flat canvas, the ancient Greeks started to group stars together into pictures, characters, animals and so on.  They didn't have to contend with light pollution, and tended to have clearer skies than we do in Britain (I've missed a number of eclipses due to clouds) so they were able to see more stars at night.  This makes it easier to draw their imaginary dot-to-dot pictures in the sky.

The Greeks got to name the constellations that we talk about today, because they were the first to classify them.  However, there's nothing wrong with devising your own constellations, using the stars that you can see at night.  For example, here's a constellation called Ursa Major (Greek for the "Great Bear").  

This part of the constellation is also known as the Plough.  But they could just as easily be called the Saucepan or the Ladle.

The saucepan...

Or the ladle...

A few things to consider when looking for constellations:  they're not always the same way up.  The Earth is rotating all the time, and this means that the stars (and the constellations) rise in the east and set in the west, in the same way as the Sun (and the moon).  The Earth's axis is tilted - what this means is that the Earth doesn't spin with a vertical axis (like spinning a basketball on your finger), but it's tilted so that it spins with a tilt.

The effect of this is that the constellations appear to rotate around a point in the sky - in fact, there's a star in the sky which doesn't rotate.  The earth's axis points directly at it, as it's above the North Pole, and the star is called Polaris.  The photo below was taken near the equator, and shows the stars rotating around the pole star (the dot near the centre of the horizon).

So, although pictures in a book or on a website might show an 'upright' version of a constellation, bear in mind that it might not always look like that in the sky.  It might be at a slightly different angle, and parts of it might be obscured by clouds, and may have fainter stars hidden by light pollution.  One very important consideration is the time of the year; some constellations are only visible at certain times of the year.  I'll explain this some time soon, but as an example, Orion is only visible during the autumn and winter months.

And in all honesty, constellation spotting is sometimes an exercise in imagination.  Some constellations look nothing like the objects or characters that they're meant to represent, and require a serious leap of faith to identify.

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