Welcome to Star Search – a game dedicated to the identification and appreciation of the constellations. We happen to know that one or two constellations will be in your sky tonight. The goal of this page is to inspire you to go outside and check them out.
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What are the Constellations? | Your Sky Tonight!
Orion | Gemini | Leo | Canis Major | Centaurus | Pavo | Scorpius | Sagittarius
What are the Constellations?
Take yourself back. Way back to 3000 B.C. For the people of that time, the stars were much more than something to look at and say "Think how insignificant we are." For the ancients, stars contained information — about navigating over the oceans, about the seasons, about the sunrise.
Since people spent so much time looking at the sky, it was inevitable that they would start seeing things. Basically they played connect-the-dots with the stars, inventing all sorts of animal and human pictures which became the constellations. There are now 88 recognized constellations, although different cultures have their own interpretations for many of them.
While most of us no longer depend on the stars for day-to-day info, the constellations remain objects of frequent observation. Because star-gazing never goes out of style.
Your Sky Tonight!
Here's a program called Cybersky. Download it. (For PC's only.)
With this program you'll be able to preview the night sky due for your town tonight. Get a good look, determine where the best constellations will be, and then go outside tonight and find them for real. You simply must try this — the first time you recognize the stars, your nights change forever.
There are three basic things that the program will use to determine your night sky tonight.
1. Your location.
On which side of the Earth do you live? Those people living in the Northern Hemisphere (places like the North America, Europe or Japan) can't see the constellations that are "below" them, blocked by the Earth. Conversely, people in the Southern Hemisphere (places like South America, Australia, and Southern Africa) can't see the northern constellations.
2. Your season.
The season is determined by the Earth's orbital position around the Sun. Therefore, although most constellations are in your sky year round, some months find them on the other side of the Sun, and thus out only during the daytime. Winter constellations, for example, are those which appear at night during the winter.
3. Your time of day.
As the Earth spins, your view changes. The constellations sweep across the sky, rising and setting just like the Sun does.
Stories Behind the Star Search Constellations
Ever since ancient Greek times, Orion has been a fixture in the winter sky. How did he get up there? Well, it's a classic tale of egomania. Orion was the best hunter in Greece. He was so tall that he could cross oceans without getting his hair wet, and he was such a good shot that he could clear entire islands of wild animals.
But as Orion grew older he became more egotistical – and one day, while in a particularly boastful mood, he declared that he would hunt and kill every animal in the world. The Olympian gods were less than pleased with this prospect so they sent the goddess Artemis to solve the problem. She brought from the ground a great scorpion which stung Orion in the foot and killed him. Then she placed them both, Orion and Scorpius, in the winter sky as an example: "Don't be big-headed."
SUPERSTARS: Orion contains two important stars, Rigel and Betelgeuse. Betelgeuse is reddish colored, and one of the brightest stars in the night sky. Rigel is 16,000 times the brightness of our Sun, but it's so far away that it looks like a pinpoint of light.
Once upon a time, there were two close friends and half-brothers named Castor and Pollux. They ventured hither and thither, including a stint with Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece. Unfortunately, Castor's time was limited because he was a mortal, while Pollux was immortal and would live forever. It was inevitable that Castor would die someday, and he did. But Pollux was so distraught at Castor's death that Zeus took pity, and placed them both in the sky forever as the constellation Gemini.
This regal constellation springs from a story about Hercules, one of the greatest Greek heroes. Hercules was challenged to complete twelve great labors, the first of which was to kill the invulnerable Nemean Lion. Now you might think it impossible, by definition, to kill an invulnerable lion. But Hercules wasn't a logical fellow, and he didn't much care for the rules of others. He found the Nemean Lion on a hillside, and set about squeezing the beast so tight, that the immortal life fled out of it. Hercules wore the lion skin from that point forth as a sign of his victory. Zeus, who felt bad for the noble lion, placed it in the heavens as the constellation Leo.
SUPERSTAR: Regulus, in Leo's foot, is 80 light years away from Earth and 160 times more radiant than the Sun. It lies almost directly on the ecliptic (a slice of the sky where all the planets are found). On July 7, 1959, Venus actually blocked Regulus for the day — making a kind of weird stellar eclipse.
Canis Major was one of two hunting dogs that Orion brought with him into the sky. The other, Canis Minor, is a smaller constellation which consists of only one star. The term "dog days of summer," meaning the hottest days of August, is derived from Canis Major. Although a winter constellation, Canis Major first appears in late August during the heat — and people associate the constellation with warm summer nights.
SUPERSTAR: Canis Major has the most famous of all stars, Sirius. Due to its close proximity to Earth, and its large size, Sirius is the brightest star in the sky.
The Centaurs are a naughty bunch — they're unruly, lascivious, violent and uncontrollable. If you see a Centaur coming towards you, cross to the other side of the street. However, there was once an exception, a Centaur named Chiron; he was gentle and wise, a great healer and honored tutor.
One day, Chiron went to Hercules and asked to see his poisoned arrows for some medicinal research. Hercules agreed, but he wasn't the most dexterous of heroes, and he dropped a poison arrow on Chiron's foot. The wound, although not fatal, was extremely painful. Zeus took pity on the uncomfortable Centaur, and gave him immortal rest as the constellation Centaurus.
SUPERSTAR: When people predict the future of space travel, they often include a journey to Alpha Centauri, the closest star to our Sun. It is a mere 4.3 light years, or 25 trillion miles away. No problem, right?
As constellations go, Pavo's the new kid. Described in 1609 by the German astronomer Johann Bayer, the Peacock is based on early sea-farers' descriptions of the stars. We think it looks more like a duck than a peacock – what do you think?
Scorpius was the one that stung Orion to death (see Orion story above). Understandably, the two don't get along so well. Scorpius has been placed in the stars in such a way that he and Orion are always on opposite sides of the sky. That seems lucky for Scorpius because, to tell you the truth, Orion is just dying for another chance to go after that pesky scorpion.
SUPERSTAR: Scorpius' main star is Antares. But you can call it "Big Red" if you want to. It has a diameter 700 times that of our Sun, and a burnished red light that is 7600 times as bright.
Sagittarius is a Centaur, and the story about this constellation is similar to the one about Centaurus (see above). So, let's go culture surfing to find some alternate stories. The ancient Babylonians saw in these stars the Nergal, the King of War (who, coincidentally, was also a Centaur). The Chinese saw a tiger. Julius Schiller, in 1627, tried to see the apostle Matthew — but it didn't catch on. In 1997, the Space Day Team saw Roger, the trusty friend and guide of the Web site. We think the moral here is: The stars are for everybody, so go outside and see what constellations the skies are drawing for you.