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Gazing up at the night sky, a canvas of twinkling stars and mysterious darkness Can be a magical experience for kids. What if we told you that those stars form beautiful patterns called constellations, each with its own captivating story? In this beginner’s guide to constellations, we will embark on a celestial journey to meet some of the brightest stars in the night sky, perfect for young stargazers or science enthusiasts. Let’s explore the wonders of the universe and discover the stories that have fascinated humanity for centuries.
What Are Constellations?
Constellations are a group of stars that form recognisable shapes and patterns in the night sky. These patterns have been named and identified by various cultures throughout history. They serve as a celestial roadmap, helping us find our way among the vastness of the universe.
Before we dive into the specific constellations, let’s learn how to spot them. You don’t need fancy equipment – just your eyes, and a dark, clear night. Here’s how:
- Find a dark spot away from city lights.
- Allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness for about 20 minutes.
- Look up! Try to identify the brighter stars that stand out.
Now let’s meet some of the most famous constellations, that even young stargazers can find.
The Big Dipper (Ursa Major)
One of the most iconic constellations, the Big Dipper, is part of Ursa Major, the Great Bear. To spot it, looked for a ladle-shaped group of stars in the northern sky. The two stars at the front of the ladle point directly to the North Star, Polaris. Its seven bright stars are easy to spot.
- Two meteor showers occur every year, and they appear from the direction of Ursa Major.
- The Big Dipper has been used as a navigation tool for centuries as two of its stars function as pointers to the North Star.
- Its brightest star, Alioth, is 102 times brighter than the Sun.
- The Big Dipper asterism can be used as a celestial clock, and it can be used as a guide to the other stars in the night sky.
Orion The Hunter
Orion the mighty hunter, is another easily recognisable constellation. Kids can look for three bright stars in a row, forming Orion’s belt. Below the belt, two more bright stars represent his legs. He’s often depicted as a hunter holding a club and a shield!
- The Orion constellation can be spotted from November to February.
- The stars Betelgeuse and Rigel are among Orion’s brightest. Betelgeuse is a red supergiant star nearing the end of its life, while Rigel is a blue supergiant star, one of the most luminous stars in our galaxy.
- The Orion Nebula, which hangs off of Orion’s belt consists of dust, helium, hydrogen, and ionized gases. It is also one of the most studied regions in the night sky and is home to thousands of stars in various stages of formation.
- Bellatrix is the third brightest star in Orion.
Cassiopeia The Queen
Cassiopeia is a constellation that resembles a W or an M, depending on its position in the sky. According to Greek mythology, Cassiopeia was a beautiful queen who boasted about her beauty. As a result, she and her family were placed in the heavens as constellations. It’s a great example of how ancient stories are woven into stars.
- Cassiopeia is visible year-round in the northern hemisphere and is often used as a reference point for finding other constellations.
- It is often visible in the northern sky and is easy to spot even in urban areas with some light pollution.
- Cassiopeia is among 48 constellations first listed by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy, in the 2nd Century, CE.
- In Greek mythology, Cassiopeia is part of a famous celestial family, with her husband Cepheus, daughter Andromeda, and Perseus the hero who saved Andromeda from the sea monster.
The Little Dipper (Ursa Minor)
Just like The Big Dipper, the Little Dipper is part of the Ursa Minor constellation, which means “Little Bear.” It’s home to the North Star, Polaris, which remains almost stationary in the night sky. Polaris, is a reliable guide for finding north, making it invaluable for navigation.
- Sailors and mariners have used The Little Dipper as a navigation tool for centuries.
- To find The Little Dipper, one must see the Big Dipper and follow straight up the line between Merak and Dubhe.
- It’s best to see The Little Dipper in June, at 9pm since this is when the asterism is the most prominent in the sky.
- Polaris, is the brightest star of this asterism and the current North Star, revealing the North Celestial Pole’s location.
Pegasus The Winged Horse
Unlike others, Pegasus is a magnificent constellation that might require a bit more imagination to see. Four stars form a square, which represents Pegasus’ body, and the stars extending from the square creates his wings and head.
- There is only one meteor shower associated with the Pegasus constellation, July Pegasids.
- The Great Square of the Pegasus asterism is used by astronomers as a guide towards finding famous deep-sky objects, such as the Andromeda Galaxy.
- Currently, around 12 stars in Pegasus have been confirmed to host planets.
- There are plenty of interesting bright stars in Pegasus, among them, the brightest star Enif, the second brightest, Scheat, the third brightest Markab, the fourth brightest Algenib, the red dwarf, and the white dwarf star system designated as AG Pegasi, among many others.
Leo The Lion
Leo is a constellation representing a majestic lion, that is visible in spring and early summer months. It’s easy to spot, thanks to its distinctive backward question mark-shaped pattern, representing the lion’s head and chest. A triangle of stars represents its hindquarters. In this constellation, the star, Regulus is one of the brightest stars in the night sky.
- Leo is also part of the Zodiac, along with Taurus the bull.
- Leo is the 12th largest constellation in the sky occupying an area of around 947 square degrees.
- There are two meteor showers associated with the constellation of Leo, they are the Leonids and the January Leonids.
- This constellation is associated with the Nemean Lion from Greek mythology, who was killed by Hercules during the first of his 12 labors.
Draco The Dragon
For those who love mythical creatures, Draco the Dragon is a constellation worth seeking. Draco winds through the northern sky like a serpentine dragon. It’s one of the largest constellations and features several stars that can be seen with the naked eye. However, it is not the easiest to spot, but with a little patience, you will be able to find it.
- The constellation encompasses several faint galaxies, including the Draco Dwarf Galaxy, one of the least luminous galaxies with a diameter of about 3,500 light years.
- It is formed of four stars near the border of Hercules.
- Draco curls across the sky between Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.
- Draco consists of several double stars, including Eta Draconis and 20 Draconis.
Taurus The Bull
Taurus is a constellation that represents a bull charging through the sky. Look for the brightest star cluster known as the Pleiades, which is sometimes called the “Seven Sisters.”
- The Taurus constellation was cataloged by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy during the 2nd Century, CE. It is considered ancient as it dates back to the Bronze Age. It is portrayed in caves from over 17,000 years ago.
- There are two meteor showers in the Taurus constellation, which can be viewed during the last three months of the year, and are called the Northern Taurids and the Southern Taurids.
- The bordering constellations are Auriga, Perseus, Aries, Cetus, Eridanus, Orion, and Gemini.
- The constellation of Taurus has nine stars that host planets.
Andromeda The Princess
Andromeda is a beautiful constellation named after a princess from Greek mythology. It’s relatively easy to spot because it contains the famous Andromeda Galaxy, the nearest spiral galaxy to our Milky Way. Look for the V shape in the sky, which represents Andromeda’s body and head.
- The Andromeda Galaxy has a massive star cluster in its center and a supermassive black hole somewhere hidden inside.
- At first, astronomers believed it was a Nebula cloud in the Milky Way.
- Andromeda Galaxy has one trillion stars, and our Milky Way has around 200-400 million.
- It is believed that the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxies will collide, forming a sizeable elliptical type of galaxy.
Arcturus The Bear Guardian
Arcturus is a bright orange giant star located in the constellation, Boötes, which represents a herdsman or Plowman. The constellation is shaped like a kite with Arcturus at its base. Arcturus is often called “Bear Guardian” because it appears to be chasing the Great Bear (Ura Major) across the sky.
- The name Arcturus comes from the Greek Aktouros, meaning “keeper of the bear,” or “guardian of the bear.”
- Boötes is the 13th largest constellation in the sky and covers an area of 907 square degrees of the Northern sky.
- Tracing the path along the handle of the Big Dipper away from its bowl, one will encounter Arcturus as the initial stop, followed by Spica, which happens to be the most luminous star in the Virgo constellation. These celestial objects are not only part of the Spring Triangle but also integral components of the Great Diamond of Virgo.
- The star was not visible from Earth until about half a million years ago.
Sirius The Dog Star
Sirius is often called “The Dog Star” because it’s the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, which means Greater Dog which it represents. It is so bright that it sometimes twinkles with colours. Look out for Sirius in the winter sky, and you will find it below Orion’s belt.
- Sirius is 25 times brighter than The Sun. One of the reasons for this is because it is the closest star to us.
- The rising of Sirius is believed to have marked the flooding of the Nile in Ancient Egypt and marked the “dog days of summer” (hot days) for the ancient Greeks.
- The Sirius system was initially composed of a pair of bluish stars. However, the larger star, Sirius B, went through a transformation in which it exhausted its resources, evolved into a red giant, subsequently shed its outer layers, and ultimately transitioned into its present condition as a white dwarf approximately 120 million years ago.
- The Sirius system (Sirius A and Sirius B) is said to be around 230 million years old.
Delta The Dolphin
Delta, also known as Delphinus, is a lesser-known small, but charming, constellation. It represents a playful dolphin leaping out of the water. As it is part of a smaller constellation, it is easier for beginners to spot!
- Delphinus’ neighboring constellations are Aquarius, Aquila, Equuleus, Pegasus, Sagitta, and Vulpecula.
- Delta Delphini is a spectroscopic binary star that is located 223 light years away from the Sun.
- Delphinus is one of the 42 constellations that represent an animal.
- In Greek Mythology, the dolphin was a messenger of the sea god Poseidon.
Hercules The Hero
Hercules is a prominent summer constellation named after the legendary Greek hero. It’s easy to recognise due to its distinct shape, which resembles a keystone. The Hercules cluster (Messier 13) is a stunning globular cluster of stars that can be seen through a telescope. It contains hundreds and thousands of stars tightly packed together.
- The genitive form of Hercules, used in star names is Herculis.
- Hercules belongs to the Hercules family of constellations along with Aquila, Ara, Centaurus, Corona, Australis, Corvus, Crater, Crux, Cygnus, Hydra, Lupus, Lyra, Ophiuchus, Sagitta, Scutum, Sextans, Serpens, Triangulum Australe, Vulpecula.
- The brightest star in the constellation is Kornephoros, Beta Herculis.
- The constellation contains 11 formally named stars.
Exploring constellations can be a fascinating and educational adventure for kids. By introducing them to these celestial wonders and the captivating stories they hold, we can inspire a lifelong love for astronomy and storytelling under the starry night sky. So, grab a blanket, head outside, and start your journey to meet the stars!