Celestial Dot-to-Dot Puzzles
When you gaze upon the night sky, especially in the dark skies of the countryside, you can see all kinds of people and creatures up there.
In September, you’ll find a disgraced hunter turned hero, two bears, another mighty hunter chasing the big bear, a swan, a giant scorpion, a dolphin, a harp, a stretched-out dragon and a winged horse.
If you can honestly see all of them as what they’re supposed to be, you either have a great imagination, or you’re a big liar! The vast majority of constellations don’t look like what they’re supposed to be, not even close in some cases.
Constellations are just like dot-to-dot puzzles in a kid’s coloring book. Unlike the coloring book, though, the stars that make up the dots vary in brightness, and there are no numbers by the stars. We have to decide what stars to connect with our mind’s eye.
Just as people do now, our ancestors tried to make sense of the randomness of the multitude of stars that greeted them every night. They connected the stars the best they could to make pictures meant to commemorate or celebrate a person, god or gods, animal, or even an object in the sky. Some believed these cosmic pictures were divinely designed.
The images they came up with were based on local legends and mythology. It’s pretty apparent that it didn’t really matter to them that the constellations didn’t quite match what was being portrayed; the familiar patterns were handy storytelling tools around a campfire.
With the absence of the beyond-belief media sources we have today, the constellation pictures were great for passing down local mythology and legends through the generations. That’s because the star patterns never seemed to change in size or shape.
In reality, the stars change positions relative to each other in the sky as they orbit at various speeds around the Milky Way galaxy. The movement is so slow from our perspective that the shapes and sizes of constellations don’t radically change for thousands of years. For the most part, we still see the same constellations in the Space Age as they were in the Stone Age!
No one knows exactly when people started seeing these pictures in the sky. Some artifacts and texts from ancient Samaria, now present-day Iraq, go back more than 5,000 years, showing that people recognized constellations.
By the time the second century rolled around, the famous Greek astronomer Ptolemy had cataloged 48 constellations, some of which were borrowed from the Babylonians and others. He published these constellations and other information in his great work, the Almagest.
I love the Greek lore of the constellations. They are so colorful! You can easily call them the earliest soap operas; many are not exactly family-friendly. They’re based on Greek mythology involving Zeus and Hera, the King and Queen of the gods, and their highly dysfunctional courtship and marriage. Other celestial soap operas involve Ares, the god of war; Poseidon, the god of the sea; and many others.
Presently, the sky is divided up into 88 constellations, some big, some small, some bright and some dim. Astronomers have done this to refine the geography of the night sky for mapping purposes.
Technically, every part of the sky is part of one constellation or another. Constellations actually have arbitrary parallel and perpendicular boundaries, and the familiar and not-so-familiar star pictures lie within the boundaries.
The only place you can see all 88 constellations throughout the year is along the equator. In Butler, we can see less than 70 complete constellations throughout the year. The curvature of the Earth is the reason some constellations never get above our horizon. Many of the constellations we can’t see are visible from backyards in Australia and other southern hemispheres. The reverse is also true.
Contrary to popular belief the Big Dipper is not an official constellation. It’s just part of the Ursa Major, otherwise known as the Big Bear. The seven stars of the Big Dipper though are the brightest stars in the Big Bear. They outline the rear end and tail of the Bear. The stars that outline the head and legs are much fainter and, unfortunately because of light pollution, they’re tough to see unless you’re in the countryside.
The two stars that make up the side of Big Dipper’s pot opposite the handle are known as the pointer stars that you can use to spot Polaris, the North Star. Since Polaris shines directly above the Earth’s North Pole it appears as if all the stars in our sky circle around the North Star as our planet spins on its axis. By the way, Polaris also marks the end of Ursa Minor, otherwise known as the Little Bear.
Enjoy the spinning cornucopia of constellations performing every clear night!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net. Mike is available for private star parties. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.