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What is a constellation?
A constellation is a pattern or picture made up of a group of stars, such as Orion the Great Hunter, Leo the Lion, or Taurus the Bull. Constellations are easily recognizable patterns that help people Orient themselves using the night sky. There are 88 “official” constellations. Are the stars in a constellation closer together?
Not necessarily. Each constellation is a collection of stars distributed in three dimensions — all at different distances from Earth. The stars in a constellation seem to be in the same plane because we observe them from very, very far away. Stars vary greatly in size, distance from earth, and temperature. Dimmer stars can be smaller, farther away, or cooler than bright stars. Similarly, the brightest star isn’t necessarily the closest. In the constellation Cygnus, the darkest star is the nearest, and the brightest star is the farthest! How are constellations named?
Most of the constellation names we know come from ancient Middle Eastern, Greek, and Roman cultures. They saw star clusters as gods, goddesses, animals, and objects in stories. It’s important to understand that these are not the only cultures that inhabit the night sky with people who are important to their lives. Throughout history, cultures around the world — Native Americans, Asians and Africans — have photographed these same stars. In some cases, constellations may have ceremonial or religious significance. In other cases, the grouping of stars helps mark the time between planting and harvesting. There are 48 “ancient” constellations, which are the brightest clusters of stars — the ones that are easy to see with the naked eye. There are actually 50 “ancient” constellations; Astronomers divided one of the constellations (Argo) into three parts.