Scientific Social


Constellations - Image: NASA

What are Constellations?

Over the millennia, humans have teased out shapes of animals, mythological figures, and objects from patterns of stars in the night sky. These star patterns are called constellations.

How Many Constellations Are There?

The International Astronomical Union, or IAU, recognizes 88 official constellations. Included in this list are the 48 original constellations listed by Ptolemy in the second century A.D. This includes constellations of 14 humans, 9 birds, two insects, 19 land animals, 10 water creatures, two centaurs, one head of hair, a serpent, a dragon, a flying horse, a river, and 29 inanimate objects!

Would Constellations Look The Same On A Different Planet

Because all the stars are at different distances, the constellations would look totally different to inhabitants of another planet orbiting another star!

What Are Constellations Used For?

One of the original uses of constellations was for agriculture. Before proper calendars existed, people had no way of determining when to plant and harvest their crops except by the stars. Constellations made the patterns of the stars easy to remember. For example, it was known that when the constellation Orion becomes visible, winter was coming. Or they could look at the Summer Triangle to know when Summer or Spring was arriving. The stars allowed farmers to plan ahead and constellations made it easier to recognize and interpret the patterns in the sky.

Constellations were also used by sailors to help navigate their ships across seas. For example, it is fairly easy to spot Polaris (The North Star) once you’ve found Ursa Minor (Little Dipper constellation). One can figure out his or her latitude (North/South) just by looking at how high Polaris appears in the night sky. This allowed for ships to travel across the globe. It allowed for the discovery of America, the spread of European culture, and civilization as we know it today.

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NASA Finds 1,284 New Planets, 9 ‘Potentially Habitable’

On May 10th, NASA announced that their Kepler mission verified 1,284 new exoplanets – the single largest finding of planets to date.

According to NASA’s press release, prior to the launch of NASA’s Kepler space observatory in March of 2009, “[scientists] did not know whether exoplanets were rare or common in the galaxy. Thanks to Kepler and the research community, we now know there could be more planets than stars,” said Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters.

Kepler’s job is to study a portion of the Milky Way to search for planets, staring at over 100,000 stars. Kepler is able to discover these planets by detecting decreases in brightness that occur when planets pass in front of, or transit, their stars. A great example of this is when Mercury passed across the Sun earlier this week.

“In the newly-validated batch of planets, nearly 550 could be rocky planets like Earth, based on their size. Nine of these orbit in their sun’s habitable zone, which is the distance from a star where orbiting planets can have surface temperatures that allow liquid water to pool. With the addition of these nine, 21 exoplanets now are known to be members of this exclusive group,” according to NASA’s press release.


Image: NASA/W. Stenzel
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Pluto via New Horizons; NASA

New Horizons Finally Reaches Pluto!

If you haven’t already heard the news, NASA’s interplanetary space probe New Horizons has reached Pluto. Nine and a half years and 3 billion miles after it’s launch back in January 2006, New Horizons is the first spacecraft to explore Pluto.

While nine years may seem like a long time to us, New Horizons is the fastest human-made craft ever launched from Earth, traveling about 16.26 kilometers per second (58,536 km/h; 36,373 mph).

Although scientists will be receiving much more data around 9 PM EST tonight about Pluto and its moons, below is one of the closest images sent back of Pluto from New Horizons:

Pluto via New Horizons; NASA

Pluto via New Horizons – NASA

Never heard of New Horizons before today?

As part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, New Horizons was built by in collaboration with the Southwest Research Institute and the Applied Physics Laboratory to study Pluto, its moons as well as the Kuiper Belt – the region of the Solar System beyond the planets. By studying Pluto and the Kuiper belt, scientists hope to have a better understanding of how our Solar System formed.

So why is this a big deal? We’re glad you asked:

  1. Pluto is one of the only major objects in our solar system that we haven’t seen yet. Until today, the best image we had was from the Hubble Space Telescope:hubble-pluto.0
  2. New Horizons is a huge technological accomplishment. Using decade old technology, scientists were able to get this grand piano-sized probe over 3 billion miles with virtually no issues. Not to mention the amount of data the probe gathers in such a small window of time; there’s no slowing down when your traveling at 16.26 kilometers per second!
  3.  New Horizons will provide mankind with a better understanding of our Solar System, including Earth. By studying the data provide by New Horizons on the geology, atmosphere, moons, and more, scientists will gain a better insight into the early stages of planet formation.
  4. This will most likely be the last mission of its kind for a while. Due to major cut backs and budget cuts, it’s hard to fund amazing missions such as this. As David W. Brown writes in his article “The Dark Future of American Space Exploration”: “There is nothing budgeted in the pipeline to take its place. Yesterday invested in today. But we are not investing in tomorrow.”

For the latest on the New Horizons mission, visit If you’re reading this now (July 14th), check out NASA Television for their “New Horizons ‘Phone Home’ Countdown!

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LightSail Nye

Watch the Launch of the Planetary Society’s Groundbreaking Light Sail Live!

The Planetary Society, the largest non-governmental space exploration advocacy organization, is launching the prototype of their LightSail into space on an Atlas V rocket later today.  The mission goal is to test the deployment of the satellite’s solar sails.  Full on solar sailing won’t happen until their next mission in 2016!

Coverage of the launch begins at 10:45 am and the launch windows are 11:05 – 11:15 am and 12:42 – 12:52 pm.

You can watch the launch streaming here!

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Citizen Scientists Find Strange Yellow Balls in Space

Ordinary citizens scanning images from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope found a massive number of strange yellow balls in our galaxy.  These balls are thought to represent the earliest stages of star formation.  If you want to be a citizen scientist like those who helped make this discovery check out and click on The Milky Way Project!

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Large Amounts of Frozen Water Discovered on Mars

Mars is known to possess ice caps (composed of carbon dioxide) on its poles along with smaller, less obvious amounts of water ice as well. Water has also been suspected of lurking just below the rusty surface, especially in Mars’ low lying areas. But a new study by Karlsson et al. published in Geophysical Research Letter presents evidence for extensive water ice glaciers hidden under a layer of dust in the higher latitudes.

The presence of water ice was determined using radar measurements from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Researchers calculate that there is enough to cover all of Mars one meter deep in ice.

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How Many Stars Are There?

Have you ever looked up into the sky and wondered how many stars there are? On a clear night away from light pollution, a little over 9,000 stars can be seen with the naked human eye. Even in the darkest place on Earth, the Atacama Desert, we can’t see much more than this. But what if we had eyes that was bigger and could absorb more light?

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Solar Eclipse - March 20 2015

Total Solar Eclipse Visible In Europe, Africa, Asia

Today, millions of people across Europe, Africa, and Asia witnessed what was billed as the most impressive solar eclipse since 1999.

While many locations were plagued with cloudy conditions, Faroe Island, part of the Kingdom of Denmark, had a perfect view. Check out the video below to see a clear view of the solar eclipse in action; watch out for the Baily’s beads effect!

When is the next time we’ll be able to see a solar eclipse in the United States? Looks like we’ll have to wait a couple of years for that: August 21st, 2017. Find out even more about solar eclipses and when they’ll happen from NASA’s solar eclipse website.

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