A Jigsaw Puzzle World
by John R. Percy,
University of Toronto
are star patterns on the sky — celestial "connect the dots'' activities
that the ancients used to help them keep track of the heavens. Today, astronomers
have given constellations another (but related) meaning; they are regions of
the sky, defined by boundaries, like countries on the Earth. Every star or galaxy
we see can then be located on one of the 88 constellations into which we have
divided the sky (coincidentally, the same number as there are keys on the piano.)
Each of the 88 regions takes its name from the best-known star group or picture
in that region, so the constellation Orion is the sector of the sky that includes
the easily recognized star-pattern of Orion the Hunter.
Usually, the stars
in a constellation have no physical connection with each other. They are at
quite different distances from Earth, and it is only by accident that we see
them in the same general direction on the "dome'' of the sky.
have seen very different patterns among the stars, inventing different constellations
and attaching their own characteristic stories to them. Indeed, the constellations
are like a cosmic Rorschach Test, by which cultures put their own psychological
imprint on the heavens. Most of our constellations have been passed down from
the ancient Greeks and Romans, although a few were invented in later times when
European seafarers first mapped the Southern sky.
Probably the best
known constellation is Ursa Major, a large pattern of stars that represents
a great bear. Within Ursa Major, seven stars make up a smaller pattern (or "asterism'')
called the Big Dipper.
constellations from a book and then trying to find then outside can be a very
frustrating experience to most students. Here are a series of activities to
enhance learning, teaching, and enjoying the constellations.
Visit a Planetarium
The best place to
learn the constellations is where the ancients learned them — outside on a clear,
dark night under the dome of the sky. For a variety of reasons — not the least
of which is light pollution from our cities — this learning experience is not
practical for most classes. An excellent alternative is your local planetarium,
where a complex projection instrument simulates the sky. Most planetaria have
a regular program for school visits or can set one up if you request it in advance.
If you are not sure where the closest planetarium is, call a nearby science museum
or college physical science department.
An interesting classroom
or homework activity is to have your students investigate the stories attached
to the different constellations. This can be particularly rewarding if it can
be connected with the study of myths and legends from around the world in another
Some good references
for constellation stories include:
- Allen, R.: Star
Names: Their Lore and Meaning. 1899, 1965, Dover Books reprint.
- Gallant, R.:
The Constellations: How They Came to Be. 1979, Four Winds Press.
- Gingerich, O.:
"The Origin of the Zodiac'' in Sky & Telescope magazine, March
1984, p. 218.
- Kyselka, W.
& Lanterman, R.: North Star to Southern Cross. 1976, University Press
- Olcott, W. &
Mayall, R.: Field Book of the Skies. 1954, Putnam's.
- Proctor, P.:
Star Myths and Stories. 1972, Exposition Press.
- Staal, J.: Stars
of Jade. 1984, Writ Press, P.O. Drawer R., Decatur, GA 30031.
Invent a Constellation
To demonstrate that
there is nothing sacred about the star patterns after which the constellations
are named (and to have some fun), you might have your students invent their own
constellations. Provide them with a star chart that does not have the standard
constellations marked on it and ask them to find star patterns that appeal to
them on the chart and to make up stories to go with them. (The Sky Challenger
Star Wheels kit — see below — includes a blank star chart for just this
For schools that have
microcomputers there are several good programs on learning the constellations,
available for such popular machines as Apple, IBM, and Commodore.
Although I do not
recommend that your students memorize (and be examined on) the appearance of dozens
of constellations, it is worthwhile to reinforce the appearance of a few of them.
Ursa Major, Orion, Leo, and Pegasus, for instance, are relatively easy to find,
and can be useful for locating other constellations or celestial objects. Constellation
slides can be a useful visual aid for learning the basic star patterns.
1. Real Constellation
Color slides of
the constellations capture the subtle brightness and color differences among
the stars, as well as showing their patterns. Commercial constellation slides
can be purchased from various suppliers, such as:
You might want to
try taking your own constellation slides. This is fairly easy to do, provided
you are away from the light pollution of a city. You will need a camera with a
time exposure setting, a wide-open lens, fast color film (that means a high ASA
number), and a tripod to keep your camera steady. Point your camera at the desired
constellation and then expose the film for 20 to 40 seconds. At these short exposure
times, you will not have to guide the camera to compensate for the motion of the
Earth. An inexpensive cable release may be useful for not rocking the camera as
you hold down the shutter button.
- Hansen Planetarium,
1098 South 200 West, Salt Lake City, UT 84101
- MMI Corporation,
2950 Wyman Parkway, Baltimore, MD 21211
Some handy references:
2. Pinhole Constellation
- Scott, R. "Photographing
the Night Sky Without a Telescope'' in Science Teacher, November 1983.
Basics, booklet available from the Kodak Corp., Rochester, NY 14650 (ask
for pamphlet AC-48; cost was 50 cents last time we checked.)
These are fun to
make and can be used in standard slide projectors. You will need stiff cardboard
such as Bristol Board, sewing pins, and star charts or other diagrams of constellations.
- Cut out enough
5 cm by 5 cm (2 x 2 inch) squares of card board for each student.
- Have each student
choose a constellation and copy the significant stars in the pattern onto
a square of cardboard, leaving a barder about 0.5 cm (1/4 ") around the edge.
- Depending on
the age of the students (and safety considerations) either you or they can
then make holes in the cardboard slides for each star using the sewing pin
or needle. Make a larger hole for the brighter stars by pushing the pin all
the way into the cardboard; use only the point of the pin to make smaller
holes for the fainter stars.
- Put the slides
into the projector and show them on a screen. Remember that to show the constellations
right side up, the slide must be turned upside down. On the other hand, students
can try their hand at identifying constellations in a variety of orientations.
- Younger students
can play a game identifying constellations. One or more students can be responsible
for learning and telling the stories attached to each constellation. For older
students, each group may also want to learn something about the stars that
make up the constellation pattern and even about other objects (galaxies,
nebulae, double stars, etc.) that can be found within the boundaries of that
for Learning About the Constellations
Tours of the
Night Sky (Designed for home use, to teach the constellations while you
are looking at the night sky, includes a sky tour for each season, full transcripts,
and seasonal star maps.)
Star Wheels (Activity kit developed by the Lawrence Hall of Science, with
6 interchangeable star wheels for teaching constellations, including: Invent
Your Own Constellations, Native American Constellations Binocular Treasure Hunt
and Star Clock.) Available at many museum or science stores.
Burnham, R. The
Star Book. 1983, Kalmbach or Cambridge U. Press.
Chartrand, M. Starguide.
1982, Golden Press.
Menzel, D. & Pasachoff,
J. A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets, 2nd ed. 1983, Houghton-Mifflin.
Rey, H. The
Stars: A New Way to See Them. 1976 Houghton-Mifflin. (A good basic book
for the novice.)
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