Amazing Kids! Magazine

The Science of Star Trekking

By Tanmaya Murthy, Humor Column Editor

As we step outdoors during a starry night, we tend to look up and see the luminous gems, which decorate the night sky in a spellbound manner. These bright beautiful stars bring smiles to a million faces. Some of us even have a habit of counting the stars, but we always fail to count the total number! Stars bring a second charm to the sky. These stars form certain patterns. Although we initially may not recognize them, if we know the method, it becomes an easy and fun job! These are known as constellations. Scientifically speaking, Constellations are a cluster or a group of stars which form particular patterns depicting mythical characters. It’s like a fun game of ‘dot to dot’. The images formed are given specific names as well. During nighttime, the sky shows some constellations, which can be easily spotted.

If you are residing in the Northern Hemisphere, constellations like the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper (two parts of a constellation), and Ursa Major (Great Bear) can be seen. The Big Dipper has 7 bright stars; 3 form a handle-like structure, and the other 4 form a quadrilateral-shaped figure, which in totality forms an image of what you can call a ‘Dipper’. The Big Dipper, or Saptarishi, is an important constellation because it can be used for identifying and spotting other constellations as well. The Little Dipper is an upside down figure of the Big Dipper, though slightly smaller compared to the Big Dipper. It also consists of 7 celestial stars and forms the image of the Big Dipper, but as the name suggests, there is a difference in their size. The two outermost stars of the Big Dipper, which are a part of the quadrilateral, are called Merak and Dubhe. The outermost star in the handle of the Little Dipper is known as Polaris, a bright star. Did you know that Polaris, which is also known as the North Star, is the bright star nearest to the line crossing over Earth’s Axis of Rotation towards the North Pole? And it appears to show no movement! The outermost stars of the quadrilateral figure in the big dipper can help us to locate Gemini (the twins).

During winter, days are shorter and nights are longer in duration. The night skies during December show some prominent constellations. A well-known constellation, Orion (The Hunter), can be spotted easily. In the middle, it has 3 co-linear stars, which illustrate the belt of the hunter. Orion also comes out to be a significant constellation as it can help in locating some major stars. It can help us to spot the main stars of constellations like Gemini (The Twins), and Canis Minor (Little Dog). In Canis Minor it shows us the star Procyon. It helps us to spot Castor and Pollux in Gemini as well. Orion’s belt’s bottom-most star points to Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. The month of December is the best time for star-trekking indeed! Orion is visible in the east; in the north you can see Perseus, a constellation with 14 stars. Cassiopeia is also a well-know constellation, basically forming a ‘W’ or an ‘M’ shaped pattern in the northern night sky. It consists of five bright stars, and can be easily recognized because of its basic shape. According to Greek legend, Cassiopeia was actually a queen who bragged about her charming beauty.

Orion (The Hunter)

Canis Major (Little Dog) and Gemini

Another breathtaking constellation is Gemini (The Twins), which can be seen in the months of October, November, December, January, February, April, and May. The two brightest stars of the constellation are Pollux and Castor, which help us to locate the entire constellation. There is an interesting story of the Gemini twins – Castor and Pollux. Castor and Pollux were the identical twins born to Queen Leda. Castor was mortal whereas Pollux, being the son of Zeus, was immortal. They loved each other and didn’t want to get separated. But as Castor was mortal, he died in a battle. His death led Pollux to plead to his father Zeus to unshackle him from immortality. Zeus, in respect of their brotherly love, placed an image of both of them in the sky where they stand together.

Gemini (The Twins)

These were a few of the constellations. They indeed bring a charm to the night sky. Below, some pictures of the constellations we discussed above have been given. This will help you visualize the actual shape of the constellations.

PLANETS

Now let’s discuss planets appearing in the night sky. The planets which can be seen from earth are Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Mars and Mercury. Each of them can be seen in the sky during particular times. They are bright and don’t twinkle like stars but look beautiful in the night sky and bring a charisma to the sky. They are like shimmering gems in the dark sky. They lighten up the sky and it looks magnificent! Though Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system, Venus looks bigger in the sky from Earth comparatively as it is closer to Earth than Jupiter.

GALAXIES

A galaxy is a gigantic outer space arrangement, which has a cluster of stars and other celestial gaseous bodies. We all know that our solar system is located in the galaxy Milky Way. Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, which has an average of a billion stars. The stars that we are able to see in the night sky are all a part of the Milky Way galaxy. The galaxies Large Magellenic Cloud and the Small Magellenic Cloud can be best seen from the Southern Hemisphere.

SOME OTHER CELESTIAL BODIES

• Meteoroids: These are small bodies, some even smaller than pebbles, which are in motion in outer space.

• Meteors: The pathways through which a meteoroid enters into the body of a celestial planet are called meteors. It is also known as a shooting star.

• Meteor Showers: An occurrence when a number of meteors can be seen glowing from one fixed point in the night sky is called a meteor shower.

• Asteroids: These are bigger in size compared to meteoroids. They are rock-like structures and metallic in nature and are smaller than planets in outer space. They are found in between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

• Comets: Comets are glowing solid bodies with a long tail. They contain gases, frozen ice and dust particles. Halley’s Comet appears on Earth after every 75-76 years. It was last seen on February 9th, 1986.

Star trekking is fun and enjoyable. Even if you have never done it before, do give it a try! It is educational, interesting, and a great way to pass your free time. You can even have a constellation identifying game. The one who locates the constellation first is the winner! The sky has many breathtaking wonders. Stars are a major part of it; the sky has many more mesmerizing spectacles too. A telescope is a great device for watching stars closely. A planetarium is also a great place to understand astronomy more precisely. Star trekking is a great activity, and if you know how to do it, you’ll wish every night was a starry night! Have a starry night!