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Constellations and Stars

What Are Constellations?
So just what are these constellations you keep hearing about? You may go outside some night and see all kinds of stars, and maybe you have even spotted the Big Dipper (northern hemisphere) or the Southern Cross (southern hemisphere), but what about Leo the Lion or Pisces the Fish? What are they?

Looking at the Constellations
The first thing you need to know is that constellations are not real!

The constellations are totally imaginary things that poets, farmers and astronomers have made up over the past 6,000 years (and probably even more!). The real purpose for the constellations is to help us tell which stars are which, nothing more. On a really dark night, you can see about 1000 to 1500 stars. Trying to tell which is which is hard. The constellations help by breaking up the sky into more managable bits. They are used as mnemonics, or memory aids. For example, if you spot three bright stars in a row in the winter evening, you might realize, "Oh! That's part of Orion!" Suddenly, the rest of the constellation falls into place and you can declare: "There's Betelgeuse in Orion's left shoulder and Rigel is his foot." And once you recognize Orion, you can remember that Orion's Hunting Dogs are always nearby. Then you might recognize the two bright stars in the upper and lower left of the photograph as Procyon in Canis Minor and Sirius in Canis Major, respectively.



When you look in a sky atlas, you might see diagrams like this:

Obviously, this is very different from the photo above. This type of schematic draws the stars as different sizes to represent different brightnesses. In addition, there is a standard way to connect the stars that allow astronomers and others who use charts like this to quickly tell what they are looking at. In almost every star atlas, you will see Orion drawn with these same lines.

You might also notice that every star on the chart is labeled (sorry that it came out a little blurry). This chart is...


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