Looking Up: Constellations 101

Apr 16, 2018

Credit NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Axel Mellinger / nasa.gov

This week on Looking Up guest host Chloe Brooks-Kistler helps us all learn something about constellations. 

So, I’ve kicked Hal out of the studio for this week’s episode. He drones on and on about admittedly cool things in the sky, but he’s never answered a question I have, as a non-astronomer about the Colorado night sky.

So, I put him to work to explain how constellations came to be, especially when there appears to only be one or two bright stars in them. And don’t worry, I’ll edit out Hal’s bad jokes.

It turns out there are two basic reasons for constellations’ shapes. Some, like Leo the Lion, really do look like their namesake. But others, like Cancer the Crab is, well, a big Y.

As it turns out, many ancient constellations honor mythological figures, in roughly the same way the State of Washington honors George. The state isn’t shaped like our first president, but it does honor him.

Other constellations are more recent, having undergone a major shakeup by scientists in the 19th Century, to break up overly big constellations and create more order in our study of the skies. Currently we have 88 constellations, north and south. Some look like their namesake, others do not, but each contains beauty and secrets enough to keep scientists at work for generations.

If you’d like to take a closer look at some constellations or any of the other wonderful and amazing things in the sky, please visit csastro.org for a link to information on our monthly meetings and our free public star parties!