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Constellations inspire stories in many cultures

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By Mike Lynch
Published:
Most constellations don't look like what they're supposed to be. Not only do you have to use your imagination, but you need to put it into four-wheel drive.
Ancient cultures used constellations to depict characters in their stories or mythology. They didn't really care if the constellations resembled the cast members in their celestial sagas or not.
These dramas would be played out in the heavens night after night and year after year in their much darker night skies, free of light pollution from shopping malls and such.
But the constellations pretty much keep their same shapes over the ages. Because of the Earth's rotation on its axis and its orbit around the sun, the constellations move across the sky generally to the west through the course of the night, and also migrate slowly westward from night to night through the course of the year.
The individual stars that make up the constellations, however, have barely budged relative to each other in thousands of years.
The constellation names and stories vary, of course, with the many different cultures. Most of the Western Hemisphere is familiar with those that originate from Greek and Roman mythology. You'll find many different versions of the same story since they have been passed down mostly by word of mouth.
Even though a full moon is partially washing out the details, there's still quite a story being carried out in the early evening southern sky right now. It involves the bright constellation Orion and some of his bright surrounding constellations.
These are some of the brightest constellations you can see in the night sky. Orion looks more like an hourglass, but that is the torso of the heavenly hunter. The three bright stars in a row depict his belt. You use the belt stars as a pointer to help you find the neighboring constellation, Taurus the Bull, to the upper right of Orion.
Taurus is a smaller constellation with a little arrow pointing to the lower right that outlines the snout of the bull. One of the stars, Aldebaran, is much brighter than the rest.
Just above the arrow is a super bright star, the planet Jupiter, that this winter finds itself in that part of the night sky as it migrates among the stars in its 12-year cycle.
Jupiter is a great target for a small telescope or even a good pair of binoculars as you can see up to four of its brightest moons as they orbit around the biggest planet in our solar system. You may also see some of Jupiter's cloud bands around the 88,000-mile-wide world.
Just above the Taurus' arrow and Jupiter is the bright star cluster called the Pleiades. Even in urban skies you can see that it resembles a tiny little dipper.
Most people see six to seven stars in the Pleiades but with binoculars you can see many more. Astronomically it's a group of young stars born together about a hundred million years ago.
The Pleiades star cluster is also known as the Seven Little Sisters.

Mike Lynch is an astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of "Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations." Check his website, www.lynchandthestars.com.
The Everett Astronomical Society: www.everettastro.org/.

Story tags » Star Gazing

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