Since the dawn of time, celestial objects such as stars have been accorded great importance in human history and myths. The existence of mythical stories, which attribute different occurrences and origin to the stars, has given rise to constellations. A constellation is a collection of stars in the celestial sphere whose outline resembles a mythological creature. Notably, most of these constellations date back to the prehistoric era. For instance, Ptolemy, a Greek astronomer, identified 48 constellations in the 2nd century, which were named in honor of Greek mythical legends and heroes.
Currently, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) recognizes 88 official constellations (StarDate, 2020). Each of these constellations is associated with distinct attributes. In particular, the ancients utilized these attributes in their daily activities. To determine seasons and navigation, the zodiac, the Polaris, and Ursa Minor were used, respectively. On the contrary, some constellations were famous for their beauty. These include Orion and Hercules while Hydra was and is still famous for its large physical size.
The earth rotates around the sun in a defined circular path known as the ecliptic. Hence, the constellations that lie along the ecliptic path in the sky is referred to as Zodiac constellations. Despite the existence of 13 zodiac constellations, astrologers omit Ophiuchus and, thus, recognize 12 constellations as zodiac signs, which are used to make predictions (Space, 2020).
The 12 zodiac constellations used by astrologers are Virgo, Capricorn, Sagittarius, Taurus, Aquarius, Gemini, Pisces, Aries, Cancer, Leo, Libra, Scorpio, and. Moreover, as the earth rotates around the sun, the sun passes through the zodiac constellations. In contrast to the ancient period, the earth’s position on its axis shifts as it rotates resulting in season changes.
Therefore, the effectiveness of the constellations in determining time is no longer applicable. For instance, in the past, the sun would pass through Taurus during spring equinox but today, the sun passes through Pisces during the spring equinox. Therefore, in present times, zodiac signs are not used to determine the times of the year.
The Largest and Smallest Constellation
Hydra, which is represented as a sea snake or a water serpent, is the largest constellation found in the southern hemisphere. Hydra covers more than a third of the southwestern sky. Per the boundaries agreed upon by the International Astronomical Union, Hydra spans 1,303 square degrees, which is approximately 3% of the entire celestial sphere.
Linearly, it moves across 95 degrees of the visible sky and takes approximately 7 hours to rise into full view. Other large constellations include Virgo, the Maiden, and Ursa Major. The smallest constellation is Crux (InfoPlease, 2017).
Crux, which is referred to as the Southern Cross is the smallest constellation. This is because the Crux is located in the southern hemisphere and comprises of four stars that form a Latin cross. The constellation covers approximately 68 square degrees and is, therefore, only visible from the United States. Other small constellations include Equuleus, Scutum, and Circinus.
Visibility of other Constellations
The Big Dipper/Ursa Major, ‘The Great Bear’ - The Big Dipper is technically not considered a stand-alone as it forms part of the Ursa Major constellation but from the northern hemisphere, the Big Dipper is the most visible start pattern from the sky.
_The Little Dipper/Ursa Minor _– This also goes by the name The Little Bear. Identifying the Big Dipper helps you locate the Little Dipper as well as the Ursa Minor constellation.
Orion, ‘The Hunter’ - Orion is the easiest to spot in the open sky.
Taurus, ‘The Bull’ – Orion is the closest neighbor to Taurus, making it easier to spot as it is above Orion.
Gemini, ‘The Twins’ – Gemini also owes its visibility to Orion as they are just by the side of the hunter’s upraised arm.
Constellation and Navigation
Before the invention of GPS units and navigational equipment, such as satellites and clocks, sailors relied on the stars to determine their location and to keep an accurate account of a time when they were out of the land. One such star is the Polaris of the Ursa Minor constellation, which also identifies as the North Star because of its close location to the North Pole.
An example of a star that was used by sailors to guide their orientation is the Polaris of the Ursa Minor constellation. The Polaris identifies as the North Star and is located close to the North Pole (Natural Navigator, 2018). In navigation, Polaris’s default north direction enabled sailors to determine other compass directions. Whenever the sailors could spot the North Star, they would know that they are facing north.
Another constellation that can be used for navigation is the constellation Orion. Orion forms a belt from the east to the west. The Orion belt is made up of three bright stars that form a straight line in the sky.
The Beauty of Constellations
Other than their navigational properties, constellations paint the night sky making it a remarkable sight. In the night sky, they are regarded as an appealing sight, one to behold. Their abstract designs not only provide information but also inspire observers; especially Orion and Hercules are some examples of beautiful constellations.
An image of Orion depicts human-shaped constellation shows that it is a human-shaped constellation made up of a collection of stars and low mass objects, which failed to develop into stars. Hercules, on the other hand, forms an image of a kneeling giant between two stars (Earth Sky, 2020). Indeed, such beauty of the constellations serves as a wonder to many.
In ancient history, people used constellations to symbolize and relate to their beliefs and experiences. Most of these constellations trace their origin to ancient Greece. Nonetheless, other civilizations, such as Egyptians, also derived their beliefs and myths from constellations. Today, constellations are an object of study with astronomers segmenting them in three groups: 15 in the Southern Hemisphere and 21 in the Northern Hemisphere, and 12 zodiac constellations. Hence, over the years, technological and scientific development has revolutionized constellations from navigation and mythology symbols to a discipline of study. Regardless, the beauty of constellations is a wonder that has withstood the effect of change through time and continues to persist.