Astronomy for Kids
What is a constellation?
A constellation is a group of visible stars that form a pattern when viewed from Earth. The pattern they form may take the shape of an animal, a mythological creature
, a man, a woman, or an inanimate object such as a microscope, a compass, or a crown.
How many constellations are there?
The sky was divided up into 88 different constellations in 1922. This included 48 ancient constellations listed by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy as well as 40 new constellations.
The 88 different constellations divide up the entire night sky as seen from all around the Earth. Star maps are made of the brightest stars and the patterns that they make which give rise to the names of the constellations.
The maps of the stars represent the position of the stars as we see them from Earth. The stars in each constellation may not be close to each other at all. Some of them are bright because they are close to Earth while others are bright because they are very large stars.
Hemispheres and Seasons
Not all of the constellations are visible from any one point on Earth. The star maps are typically divided into maps for the northern hemisphere and maps for the southern hemisphere. The season of the year can also affect what constellations are visible from where you are located on Earth.
Here are a few of the more famous constellations:
Orion is one of the most visible constellations. Because of its location, it can be seen throughout the world. Orion is named after a hunter from Greek mythology. Its brightest stars are Betelgeuse and Rigel.
Ursa Major is visible in the northern hemisphere. It means "Larger Bear" in Latin. The Big Dipper is part of the Ursa Major constellation. The Big Dipper is often used as a way to find the direction north.
Ursa Minor means "Smaller Bear" in Latin. It is located near Ursa Major and also has the pattern of a small ladle called the Little Dipper as part of its larger pattern.
The Draco constellation can be viewed in the northern hemisphere. It means "dragon" in Latin and was one of the 48 ancient constellations.
The Pegasus constellation is named after the flying horse by the same name from Greek mythology. It can be seen in the northern sky.
The zodiac constellations are the constellations that are located within a band that is about 20 degrees wide in the sky. This band is considered special because it is the band where the Sun, the Moon, and the planets all move.
There are 13 zodiac constellations. Twelve of these are also used as signs for the zodiac calendar and astrology.
Uses for Constellations
Constellations are useful because they can help people to recognize stars in the sky. By looking for patterns, the stars and locations can be much easier to spot.
The constellations had uses in ancient times. They were used to help keep track of the calendar. This was very important so that people knew when to plant and harvest crops.
Another important use for constellations was navigation. By finding Ursa Minor it is fairly easy to spot the North Star (Polaris). Using the height of the North Star in the sky, navigators could figure out their latitude helping ships to travel across the oceans.
Interesting Facts about Constellations
- The largest constellation by area is Hydra which is 3.16% of the sky.
- The smallest is Crux which only takes up 0.17 percent of the sky.
- Small patterns of stars within a constellation are called asterisms. These include the Big Dipper and Little Dipper.
- The word "constellation" comes from a Latin term meaning "set with stars."
- Twenty two different constellation names start with the letter "C."
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