Complex Things in Simple Words | What you may not know about constellations

When you go outside on a clear night, you can see a constellation in the sky. It seems that everyone should know what it is. However, in fact, a lot of interesting things can be told about them, including something that is unknown to an ordinary person. Try to answer the following questions yourself before reading the answers!

What don’t you know about constellations?

1. Are constellations figures in the sky?

The statement that constellations are the figures into which the stars are formed on the celestial sphere is inaccurate. It was true many centuries ago, when astronomy was just beginning to develop. Since then, people have learned that we do not see many luminaries in the sky with the naked eye. Therefore, in 1928, astronomers decided to consider certain areas in the sky as constellations.

In general, the whole sky is divided into 88 constellations. All stars, star clusters, galaxies and nebulae located in the corresponding part of the sky are considered to belong to one of them. If we put them all on the map, we may not see the familiar figures.

2. What is an asterism?

Asterism is a group of stars in the sky that can be easily distinguished from others and which often has its own “folk” name. They may be part of the same constellation or belong to different ones. An example of the first is the Orion Belt, consisting of three bright stars located on the same line. All of them belong to the constellation Orion. In Ukrainian, this asterism is also called “Mowers”.

3. At what distance from us are the constellations?

Astronomical objects that are part of constellations are most often not connected to each other and are located at different distances from us. Even for stars, it can differ hundreds and thousands of times, not to mention galaxies and quasars lying far beyond the Milky Way. 

In any case, the objects that are part of the constellations are so far away from us that their distance is measured in light years. One light-year is 63,240 astronomical units, that is, the average distance from the Earth to the Sun. This roughly corresponds to 9.46×1015 m.

4. Could dinosaurs see the same constellations as we do?

The Sun and the entire Solar System together with it moves in space, orbiting the galactic center. One orbit lasts approximately 250 million years. Other stars do the same while moving in their own orbits at their own speeds. Because of this, the figures of the constellations change all the time. On the timescale of human history, this is almost imperceptible. But if we went 50 thousand years into the past or the future, it would be very difficult for us to know the sky.

5. What constellations did the Chinese see in the sky?

The existing system of constellations we inherited from the Greeks and Romans. It has become worldwide only due to the fact that European culture dominates in the world, and it relies precisely on ancient achievements.

However, other nations saw their own figures in the sky. So, for the ancient Indians, Orion was a “Deer”, Cassiopeia was a “Hand” for the Arabs, and the Kazakhs believed that the dipper of the Ursa Major was seven robbers who were preparing to steal horses.

One of the most interesting “alternative star maps” was created by the Chinese. Their constellations don’t look much like European ones at all. For example, they combined some of the stars of the same Cassiopeia with others in the constellation of the Black Turtle, and in another, they saw a White Tiger.

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