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Major Constellations: Facts & Names

Instructor: Julie Zundel

Julie has taught high school Zoology, Biology, Physical Science and Chem Tech. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master of Education.

Learning about constellations is not only fun, but a great way to identify the stars in the sky. This lesson will outline a few major constellations, along with their associated myths, and then will give you some fun constellation facts.

History

What if I told you, you'd see the following tonight:

  • A great hunter
  • A woman who was turned into a bear
  • A giant dog
  • or an Ethiopian Queen?

Yeah, you would probably think I was crazy, but if you were to go outside at night, you could see all of these things. No, they aren't lurking in the woods, they are constellations, which are when stars appear as a patterns that can be identified as specific objects (like a hunter, or a bear, or a dog). Learning constellations is a good way to be able to locate specific stars in the sky. For example, if you're able to find the constellation of the great hunter, Orion, you can find the star, Betelgeuse. Or if you can locate the bear, Ursa Major, you can find Polaris (the North Star).

There are 88 constellations and the Ancient Greeks identified 48 of them. The remaining 40 constellations came about after people began exploring and viewing more parts of the night sky. Let's take a look at some of the more popular constellations, along with some interesting facts about how they got their names. We'll focus primarily on constellations in the Northern Hemisphere, although some of them can also be seen in the Southern Hemisphere.

Constellations

Let's start with Orion, or the great hunter, who can be viewed in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Although there are various versions of the Greek myth regarding Orion, one is that he bragged about killing all of the animals on earth, so Mother Earth sent a scorpion to kill him. It is easiest to see this constellation by locating the stars that make up his belt along with Rigel, a bluish star on the lower right and Betelgeuse, a reddish star on the upper left (see image 1).

Image 1 Orion
orion

If you follow Orion's belt from right to left, you can find Sirius, which is the brightest star in the sky. It is white and part of Canis Major (see image 2).

Image 2 Finding Sirius
Sirius

Canis Major (and Canis Minor) are Orion's hunting dogs. See image 3 for Canis Major. Sirius is the nose of the dog. It is visible in the Northern Hemisphere from December through March and in the Southern Hemisphere from November through April.

Image 3 Canis Major
canis

The next constellation that you should know, especially if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, is Ursa Major (see image 4). Within this constellation is the Big Dipper, which points to Polaris or the North Star. Polaris has helped navigators for over 2000 years! If you are facing Polaris, you are facing north and if you can determine the angle of the star from the horizon, you can determine the latitude. Pretty neat, huh?!

Image 4 Ursa Major
ursa major

There are many Greek myths associated with Ursa Major, or the great bear. Here's one such myth… Zeus was married to Hera. However, Zeus liked the ladies and had lots of girlfriends, including Callisto. One day Zeus and Callisto were walking in the woods when they saw Hera. Zeus decided to make Callisto into a bear, so the affair would be hidden from Hera. Zeus kept Callisto a bear and left with his wife. Later that day, Arcas, the son of Callisto, was in the woods hunting. Unfortunately, he did not know his mother had been transformed into a bear, so he shot her and as she died, she transformed back into a human. Arcas was obviously upset and crying, and Zeus heard him and returned. He convinced Arcas not to reveal the secret, changed Callisto back into a bear and placed her into the sky as Ursa Major. He placed Arcas in the sky as Ursa Minor (the little bear).

Within Ursa Major is the Big Dipper, named because it looks like a ladle or dipper. The Big Dipper is an asterism, which is a group of stars that are not constellations, but can be part of one or more constellations (see image 5).

Image 5 Finding Polaris
polaris

You can find Polaris, the North Star, by drawing a line between the two outer stars on the Big Dipper (see image 5 and 6). And there's more! If you keep the line going past Polaris, you'll come to Cassiopeia. Who's that? Keep reading!

Image 6 Finding Polaris
polaris

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