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The Sciences

The Un-Constellations

Some of the most well-known star patterns in the sky aren't constellations, they're asterisms. 

By Corey S PowellMarch 27, 2014 4:30 PM
DSC-HS0414-skygazer.jpg
Rich Talcott

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Constellations are pictures made of stars, but not all pictures made of stars are constellations. Technically these other star patterns are asterisms, but psychologically they are the most real constellations of all — the ones that reflect current sensibilities and that show up well in light-polluted skies.

The most obvious one is the Big Dipper, a subset of stars in Ursa Major (the Great Bear), high overhead this month. Anyone can pick out the dipper; few can connect the dots to draw a bear. The Little Dipper is another, much fainter, asterism and includes Polaris (the North Star) at the end of its handle. Down low, on the opposite side of Polaris from the Big Dipper, is a prominent W-shaped zigzag of stars; forget trying to see it as Queen Cassiopeia. The distinctive backward question mark high in the south is a subset of Leo the lion. The kite rising sideways in the east is from Boötes the herdsman. 

The modern asterisms are bright and simple, and they dispense with old, largely unfamiliar mythologies. In short, they are relevant. They also personalize the sky. If you’re looking for specific celestial objects, then yes, you need to know your constellations. But if you just want to learn the landscape of the heavens, there is a special joy in going out, finding patterns and making a new lore all your own. 

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