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The Constellations of the Night Sky

The Zodiac, and others
Finding them... and why bother.
(Subpage below "Finding Stuff in the Sky")



Flat Earth Academy offers a more general page about finding stuff in the sky over your head. This page concentrates on the constellations on the night sky, including the zodiac.

Humans are good at seeing patterns, and "hard wired" to react to perceived patterns.

Since very early times, mankind has seen patterns in the sky

Do you know the following? If not, try to learn them. Just these will be a good and useful start. (They are not all to the same scale.)

(My thanks to Stellarium.org for their excellent free software, which gave me the basis for many of the diagrams in these pages. Give it a try... and learn some things about how the heavens work! And my thanks to Serif, for PhotoPlus, with which I adapted the Stellarium output.(The link will take you to where you can download a free trial edition.))

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Left side, top: Big Dipper, or Plough (WP)
Left side, bottom: Cassiopeia (WP)

Right side: Orion (WP)

For those of you who do not already know, we will come to how to find these "beginners" constellations in the sky. First a bit on why we would bother...

I'm going to spend a little time on these three, but we'll shift back into "over-view" gear again further down the page.

The Big Dipper, also known as the Plough: This seems to be a constellation many people know from childhood. It seems to be easy to learn. The fact that it is usually nearly north of you when you can see it, and that many people can see it, for much of the year, probably helps.

(I'm afraid that the specifics of this page will be most useful to people living in northern latitudes. But the general principles will apply where ever you live. Please write if you would like a version for people south of the equator.)

I'll resist the temptation to say much more about the Big Dipper/ Plough here... but we will come back to it!

Cassiopeia: Also seen to the north of the viewer, and again visible for much of the year. It is a fairly "obvious" "W" in the sky, although one of the stars, as you can see, is a bit fainter than the others.

How "they" decided that this "W" "looked like" a queen on a throne, I have never known... but that is the tradition.

Finally... Orion: In particular: his "belt" (which I have picked out in red for you.) (I also picked out the sheath for his sword, hanging from the belt, in red.)

To find Orion's belt, if it doesn't "leap out" at you: see diagram below. Here, I will try to cover what it "says" in less than the proverbial thousand words.

Start at the Big Dipper. "Draw" a "line across the sky" from the end of the dipper's handle, through the far end of the dipper. Make it, from the end of the handle, about four times as long as the overall length of the Big Dipper. You should find yourself near Orion's belt... if it is visible. (This one is not visible all through the year for many people. The further north of the equator you live, the shorter your viewing window, which is either side of January. Can you say why? (What is discussed here at the Flat Earth Academy should equip you with the relevant facts.(although that part of the story had not yet been written up at 7 Nov 14. Please get in touch if you see that I HAVE SINCE covered the "tipping" of the earth between the solstices... and quote "you need to change the thing about tipping not written up which is in constellations-zodiac.htm" Thank you!))

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To interpret shadowy figures above (again, from the splendid Stellarium), first you need to know that the Big Dipper is also known as a part of the Great Bear, Ursa Major. I've made the Big Dipper's stars red. (And the Orion's Belt stars.) I've drawn the "line across the sky" you need to imagine. (Also red.) I've indicated in yellow "one Big Dipper's worth". With that information, I hope you understand how to find Orion's Belt from the Big Dipper/ the Plough?



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Within Orion

Within Orion... a good chunk of a course on stars! Don't try to "memorize" all these examples. They are just examples of the kind of cool things up in the sky. After this, I hope you will be less quick to write something off as "just another star". Don't don't expect every constellation to have such exotic stars. Some stars are "just" stars!

You can't "see" the cool things I'm about to tell you about, even with an expensive hobbyist's telescope... but you can "see" them in your mind's eye. "Homo sapiens", and all that.


- A: Aldebaran: In a word: big. Lots of things stem from that. How big? See the little yellow speck in the image on the right? (From Wikipedia, thank you WP) That's our sun. (We, earth, compared to our sun, are more or less as much smaller again.)

Because Aldebaran is big, the pressures in the center are unimaginable. The cubic centimeter of matter at the center has all the mass above it, below it, to its left, to its right, etc, attracting (by gravity) towards all the other matter... and that central centimeter is squeezed.

Here on earth, Man invented the atom bomb, releasing energy by nuclear fission. Not content with that, he "supersized" to the hydrogen bomb: Releasing energy in the fusion of, not surprisingly, hydrogen. Aldebaran is performing helium fusion... Something I don't believe Man has achieved. And if he has, I don't want to know. ("Solving" the energy crisis with energy from controlled fission is like "solving" obesity by finding more food for the afflicted person.)

B: Betelgeuse: While not as big as Aldebaran, Betelgeuse is no slouch. As expressed at WP: "If Betelgeuse were at the center of the Solar System, its surface would extend past the asteroid belt, possibly to the orbit of Jupiter. It would wholly engulf Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars." (Light takes 8 minutes to reach us from the sun, remember.) It is one of the largest and most luminous stars.

If Aldebaran and Betelgeuse are so huge, why don't they pull themselves into one another, being so "close"? This question shows up a weakness of our model in which all the stars are "on" a distant sphere. While the two giants are nearly in line with one another, as viewed from earth, one is much farther away, along the axis of our sight-line. This keeps them far enough apart to make the chance of them pulling together slight.

At the risk of losing you forever from my page, I have to say: "Go read the Wikipedia article. This is an amazing star, about which we know extraordinary things... and which still keeps some mysteries to itself to tantalize us!

R: Rigel: Though the "star" is not as big as the two we've discussed, Rigel is brighter, as seen from earth.

I put "star" in quotes, because "Rigel" is actually the combined effect of three stars.

Now... hold on to your hat (and double check the WP entry, which I have attempted to paraphrase)....

In what we call Rigel, there are two "things", 12 light days apart, spinning around a common center...

And one of those "things" is itself two stars spinning about another common center... every 9.8 days. Who says you have to be small to be nimble? And who measures these things, and how?

It has been realized since at least 1831 that there were two "things" "dancing" together. The understanding that one of them is itself a binary came later.

Another bit from WP, unchanged: "Rigel is one of the most important navigation stars, since it is bright, easily located and equatorial, which means it is visible all around the world's oceans."

P: Pleiades: This, which you can see with the naked eye, is a cluster of stars. In this instance, many of them are "close" to one another.

As a small child, I was fascinated by tales that First Nations Americans, aka "the Indians", as in "The American Indian College Fund", an excellent organization working to fight the legacy of the white man's genocide and persecution... which didn't end in the 1800s, or even the 1950s, used the Pleiades as an "eye chart". Galileo, at the dawn of astronomy-by-telescope, was attracted to the Pleiades, making them, you might say, his "flea" or "cork cells", to make a comparison to Hooke at the dawn of microscopy. I have a small page with images from Galileo's book.

A detail: The magenta line is to help me tell you about the relative size of your three "beginner" constellations.

A line that long, beside the long dimension of the Big Dipper/ the Plough would compass about three quarters of its lenght.

The long dimension of Cassiopeia is only about two thirds of the magenta line's length.

To put it a different way...

So... after learning just three constallations, you can look at the night sky and know some amazing things about some of the "little specks" that don't seem too amazing... until you have learned a bit.



Polaris, the Little Dipper, and a clock

Getting back to why we learned the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, and the belt of Orion...

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Here's another example of finding new things, using the same techniques and your three "starter" constellations. You only have to be able to find the Big Dipper/ Plough to find the star Polaris in the constellation Little Dipper, or small bear, Ursa Minor.

Look at the illustration to the right. (Is it clear? You may have to make your window larger to see all the detail. Let me know, if this is the case.)

On the left in the illustration, at "A", "hanging down", the big dipper. Use the two stars marking the "outside" of the ladle as rifle sights, and draw a line through them to the right... as indicated by the arrows.

Take the overall length of the dipper (as shown by the green line. Go about that distance to the right of the ladle... as shown by the yellow line... and you come to another star, "B". This is "Polaris", the pole star. It will always be within a few degrees of due north of you, whereever you may be. You know the multi-hour long shutter-open photos of the night which show the stars as streaks, making concentric circles? The pole star is always at the center of all the circles. (As a diversion which I will resist going into: Think about what such photos tell you.)

}}

Not only does knowing how to find the Big Dipper and apply the "trick" give you Polaris, but it gives you the Little Dipper, another constellation which is quite easy to spot, with a little practice. In the illustration, it is going "up", away from Polaris, which is the last star in the Little Dipper's handle. Also, the Little Dipper can tell you the time of day (well, "time of night") like the hour hand of a clock... but one that turns counter (anti-) clockwise. At midnight, it "hangs down" towards the northern horizon. At 18:00, it was "pointing to the left" (i.e. perpendicular to the horizon, and the ladle was west of the handle), and at 03:00 it will be pointing right. (Of course, to benefit from this "clock", you need to be able to read the time from a "Mickey's big hand..." clock... and one that is running backwards, to boot!)

For extra credit: Get your head around why all of that must be true, if you imagine the spinning earth surrounded by a huge sphere with the stars (not planets, etc) stuck to it. (You can forget about the earth's orbit around the sun for this exercise... the stars are so far away that they make little difference to the "spinning heavens".

If your interest in the night sky grows, there will be other things you will want to find. They can be found using fancy coordinates (subject of another {to be written}} page, or by the sorts of tricks we used to find Orion's belt and the Pole Star.



The Zodiac

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Throughout the ages, some people in every generation have believed in astrology, the belief that "the stars" affect the lives of individual humans, and thus, all mankind. They believe(d) that the positions of various heavenly bodies, stars and planets, in the sky at the time of a person's birth, or the time of some event, have effects.

Before the intellectual revolution of the 1700s, a rather larger proportion of mankind believed in astrology, but the belief is far from gone in our own day. Many police and mental hospital workers today will tell you that the state of the moon does affect the minds of many people.

Kepler, one of the fathers of modern scientific astronomy, spent significant time, all through his life, trying to find "the bit he was missing" which would put traditional astrology on a scientific basis. He never gave up his belief in astrology... he thought that his failure to find a scientific basis was due to the limits of his intellect, not to the limits of astrology. He never conceded that astology couldn't really predict characters or events. We should be thankful for his faith in astrology... it drove him through the work which led to his discoveries in the science of astronomy.

What you are about to read has been heavily edited since its first draft. It turns out that my understanding of "what astrology is" was quite flawed. I suspect others, even people like me who have "known about" astrolgy for years, and even been interested in adjacent topics, will share some of my misunderstandings.

Many people will have heard of "the signs of the zodiac"... Aquarius, Leo, Taurus, Gemini... etc. (Full list below). Jewellery shops and the like often have "charts", to tell you "your sign", so that of your partners, so you can buy them a trinket with some representation of their sign.) You can (sort of) find your sign from your date of birth. Newspapers often carry "horoscopes". There will be 12 bits of advice, one for the members of each sign.

To digress for a moment: These bits of advice, when well done, are marvels of the fortune teller's art, and would make a fruitful orchard for investigators of human pschology. My horoscope for today, fetched more or less at random off of the web... (Ick! That was a mistake. I got into a site with a really creepy audio track that had a guru speaking "profound" platitudes, with intervals of heavy breathing, but it was done to sound "personal", and for a moment I thought I'd connected a live feed. Yuck!)

I valiantly tried again, and this time came up with one that said "You may have been dealing with some heavy emotional baggage or perhaps a creative burst. You'll have a chance to finish processing what you've started, whether that means having a tough conversation or completing a work of art. Sunday's moon in your relationship house sounds the call for one-on-one bonding. Use the day to get closer to someone who has been tugging fervently on your heartstrings..."

Yes, dear reader, some people take these things seriously. Perhaps what you are reading is my "work of art" I'm supposed to have a chance of finishing. (I hope so, in any case.) Some of the advice can be good, as in the above... but I will not follow Kepler in an attempt to find a link between "my stars", and any reason for Sunday being a particularly good time to engage in the bonding.

Back to the real work of the Flat Earth Academy....

As I've said, there are twelve "signs of the zodiac". And there are twelve star constellations with similar names. But, and this I didn't realize, your star sign is not determined entirely by simple relationships between when you were born and where the associated constellation was in the sky the time of your birth. Star sign and constellation position are connected, but the connection isn't simple. It isn't like, say, figuring out the time of day in New York for when it is noon in London.

The twelve constellations are, however, "spread across the sky" in a way that (roughly) associates one with each of the months of the year.

It's like this....

Remember that the stars are still up there, even during the day.

Before I say what I am about to, I need to say: never look directly at the sun, even through very dark sun-glasses, etc. You can do severe permanent damage to the most important "bit" of your eyesight... even when, at first, the sun-glasses seem "dark enough".

If you look up into the daytime sky, NOT looking anywhere near the sun, you will see blue, white or grey, depending on the weather. Even in a "clear" sky, you are seeing light that started at the sun, went out along a line not straight to you. It then hit something in earth's atmosphere, and bounced off of that, being somewhat changed in the process. The light bounces off that in all directions, including along the line from "the bouncer" to you. And thus, when you look towards the bouncer, light (indirectly) from the sun, enters your eye. This light will be much brighter than any star which is along that line of sight. And so, although the star is there, you can't see it during the day time.

But! If you have the wonderful software from stellarium.org installed on your PC, you can "turn the atmosphere off". And when you do this, the day-time sky looks like a particularly dark night-time sky. (By the way... to see the sun, our star, in the display, turn on "view planets". The label of that tick-box really ought to say "View planets and sun", or "View objects in solar system". But it doesn't. At least it didn't in late 2014.)

If you "look", with computer software, at the day-time sky, without the effect of the atmosphere, on the first of each month, you will find that the sun is "near" one of the "zodiac" constellations. And if you write the names down, you'll see that the sun passes through them in the order the astrologers use.

Of course, looking at the daytime sky didn't work very well back when people were putting astrology together. But, even though they thought the sun was going around the earth, they shared the model I describe elsewhere of earth and sun near the center of a big sphere with the stars "stuck" on the sphere.

They could work out, what was "behind" them when they looked up towards the sphere of stars during the night. The long vertical image on the right shows you a 360 degree "panorama" of the "belt" along "the middle" of the "sphere".

I've put the names of months on the panorama. I have "Dec" between Gemini and Taurus, because if you go out in mid December, and look "straight up" (I'll explain that in a moment), you will be looking at the spot between Gemini and Taurus.

"Straight up"... I mean the following, by that. You need to look along a line parallel to the line which would pass through you and the center of the earth, at midnight, if you were at the point on the equator due south, or due north, of where you are.

Whew! Go back. Read that again. It does make sense, really.

Or, you can "do the problem backwards". Take the word of "the experts", that the "zodiac" constellations are all "straight out" from the earth's equator, i.e. perpendicular to the axis of the earth's once- every- 24 hours spin. (Again... do read that again, slowly, and "get it". Don't let your eyes glaze and say "okay" before you really get it.

Once you know (or accept the word of others) that the zodiac constellations are on that part of inside of the "big sphere" which "holds" the stars, then you should be able to see them as being similar to the numerals on the face of a "with-hands" clock.... except the clock is a calendar, and where the sun- to- earth- to- constellation line segement lies will tell you the month of the year.

And (finally we get to it), we can tell which constellation the sun is "in", because it will be the one that is six months away from the one that is overhead at midnight.

Whew!

Going back

A moment ago, I said "Take the word of experts".

What fun is that? And where will it lead you? Once upon a time, "the experts" said the earth was flat. Columbus didn't agree, but even he thought he'd hit China if he sailed west.

And in any case, there is fun to be had in finding ways to prove things for yourself. (The Flat Earth Academy presents a way to prove the earth is not flat, of course.) Even if it isn't fun, it should make your brain "muscles" stronger, so that you can do more with you life than peope with weak brains.

Thank you for struggling through not just the past two paragraphs, but all that is above them. Perhaps you already understand the value of exercising your brain. Well done!



The zodiac constellations (WP) are, with links to their Wikipedia pages...

Not all of the zodiacal constellations are easy to spot, to learn... but it is worth aiming to learn them, because there will always be at least one in the sky, and they will be useful starting points for "navigating" to other constellations or objects. Some of them are quite easy to learn.





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