Looking in the night sky, most people can recognize the Big Dipper (part of Ursa Major), Virgo or even Orion. These families of stars, called constellations, have help to guide travelers, inspire poets and aid scientists in understanding the visible universe. However, what is a star constellation?
What Are Star Constellations?
A constellation refers to a series of prominent (bright) stars that form a pattern. For scientists, the more accurate definition may relate that constellations are segments of celestial spheres. While constellations can include various celestial bodies within their area, the defining components are the stars.
The stars, while actually far apart, create celestial pictures in the sky which maintain a set form as they travel across the night sky. While constellations have been designated for centuries, there are 88 official constellations which scientists use as a celestial map of the heavens.
Types of Constellations
Many people are familiar with the signs of the Zodiac, which represent the constellations association with the path of the Sun; however, there are different types of constellations depending on various ancient beliefs and customs.
In Incan culture, animal and seasonal constellations were common markers for the night sky. Chinese culture depicted the star patterns with different names, but which still held similarities to the constellations of other cultures, such as ancient Greece. Where the Greeks had Libra, the Chinese watched their skies for Root. Greco-Roman culture used the heavens as a storybook about the Gods. Many of the constellations represented the legendary figures, Orion, and the creatures, Cancer and Capricorn, of their myths.
Star Maps v. Constellations
In ancient times, constellations were used to navigate across the seas and mark the seasons of the year. With the advent of technology, constellations are tools of scientists and enthusiasts who watch the evening sky. Constellations help sky gazers understand specific regions of the cosmos, but are not truly star maps.
A star map, sometimes referred to as a star chart, is a tool used to locate constellations, nebulae and other cosmic phenomenon, such as double stars. Star maps, which depict the various celestial bodies’ position along the Milky Way, help people predict the seasonal position of constellations and also help in charting the motion of other celestial bodies.
Whether tracing Polaris within the constellations of the Big and Small Bear or searching for nebulae along Orion’s belt, star gazing is a pass time enjoyed by the young and old. While scientists continue to investigate the deep recesses of space, the rest of us look in the night sky and see the wonder of the familiar pattern of stars that guided our ancestors.
For more information regarding constellations, check out the following websites: