Years ago I went with the Cub Scouts to visit the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. I definitely enjoyed being a blood cell and circulating through the Giant Heart there, but what really wowed me was the Fels Planetarium. The lights went down, the stars came out, and I was hooked. I loved the way the presenter not only named the stars but connected them with lines and created people and animals and things and told the tales that went with them.
There is something very comforting about the constellations. As long as you don’t travel too far north or south, you see the same constellations at night wherever you go. They follow a reassuring pattern with Orion and Taurus and Gemini in the winter, Leo and Corvus and Virgo in the spring, Scorpius and Hercules and Cygnus in the summer, and Pegasus and Andromeda and Perseus in the fall. They become familiar friends. We can trace out their shapes, give them names, and retell their stories. They take us back to an earlier time when we were protected by a two-dimensional sheltering sky.
In 1928, the International Astronomical Union divided up the sky into 88 official constellations. This made it easier for stargazers to talk with one another, but we also lost a lot of variety. Different cultures see different constellations. Not all of us see a hunter when we look at the stars of Orion. The Egyptians saw Osiris, the Ojibwe see a paddler (Biboonkeonini the Wintermaker), the Lakota see the hand of a chief, and the Mayan see the Turtle of Creation. Those seven brightest stars that we call Orion are not as tightly grouped as they appear, but vary in distance from 240 to 1360 light years. We are not even seeing them at the same time because their starlight left years apart over the span of a millennium. What we like to think of as a dome is three dimensional space with vast distances between stars.
Once we learn to “see” a constellation, it is challenging to “unsee” it. Our familiarity with constellations inhibits us from seeing the stars in other ways. But it’s rewarding to try. Here’s how. Go out on any clear night. Choose a dozen or so of the brighter stars. Connect the dots and make a pattern that is pleasing to you. It could be a person or animal or object. Give it a name, and it’s yours. Spin a tale to go with your pattern, and you have created a constellation. It’s not officially recognized, but it’s no more or less real than those of the IAU. Best of all, you have seen the starry sky anew!
You can discover some traditional constellations or create your own at Kickapoo Valley Reserve on March 11 (6-8pm) when we walk by Light of the Full Crust Moon. Attendees will gather at the Visitor Center and hike down to Old 131 Trail. KVR astronomy educators will have binoculars and a telescope for you to see the maria, craters, and rays of the Full Moon. We will also look at planets and constellations while enjoying the other sights, sounds, and smells of the moonlit world. Involves moderate hiking in the dark on uneven and possibly slippery surfaces. Participants have the option of remaining at the Visitor Center for stargazing. Please register (608-625-2960) to receive weather updates. Annual or day trail pass required.
John Heasley is an astronomy educator and stargazer who enjoys connecting people with the cosmos. He volunteers with NASA/JPL as a Solar System Ambassador. For more information about stargazing in southwest WI, like Driftless Stargazing LLC on Facebook and find out whenever there’s something awesome happening in the skies. Driftless Dark Skies appears monthly in the Voice of the River Valley.