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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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