A Side of Science: Astronomers don’t study constellations

In my latest video, I share some unofficial gamma-ray constellations that were created by scientists with the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.

Constellations have long been associated with astronomy – understandably, because constellations are found in the night sky, and astronomers study objects found in the night sky. However, one thing I’d like to straighten out – astronomers don’t study the constellations themselves.

In astronomy, constellations are a roadmap to the objects that we study. And they’re not a great roadmap at that. After all, if you were to try to use them to navigate in space, you’d find that the stars aren’t exactly fixed with relation to each other. It would be as if you were mapping a road trip, but as soon as you got on the road, the cities kept shifting in relationship to each other the closer you got to one of them.

Visualization of the stars of Orion as they would appear if you travelled around them – they only appear as they do because of our position on Earth. (Credit: F. Summers/STScI)

That’s not to say constellations aren’t of interest – they capture a history of storytelling in cultures across the globe. The constellations we’re most familiar with only capture a piece of that – mostly Greek mythology. But people have been assigning stories to the stars for much, much longer than that.

The group of stars that make up Orion, for example, have a myriad of different forms from a hunter to the father of gods to a bison. According to Wired, the stars in what we call Orion have stories associated with them in Native American, Hungarian, Egyptian, and Chinese cultures, and many others.

Since constellations tell us more about the culture and history of people on Earth than they do about the cosmic objects they hold, they are more likely to be studied by anthropologists than astronomers.

Do you have a favorite constellation? Or a favorite story about objects in the sky? Share them in the comments!

And, in case you missed my Fermi Constellation video, be sure to check it out

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One Reply to “A Side of Science: Astronomers don’t study constellations”

  1. When I was a kid, my grandmother pointed out that the dark areas on the moon make the form of a rabbit. Even though it’s been close to 40 years since she told meet that and I know better, it’s still what I see when I look at the moon.

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