Science in School: Your Guide to the Stars: Constellations and their Stories


Aarna Pal-Yadav, Columnist

The stars are, quite simply, beautiful. They are silvery threads in a rich tapestry that coats the night sky, and they hold the stories of the past within their folds. It takes tens of thousands of years for light from distant stars to travel across space and reach Earth, so the stars we see in the night sky hold the history of thousands of years within their light. Likewise, some stars are organized in the most unusual of patterns, so hundreds of years ago, people staring up at the same stars we gaze at today created rich stories about them; in this way, constellations hold the history of the humans before us within their patterns. 

Even in New York City – the City that Never Sleeps – where smog coats the sky, some stars shine through the pollution to grace the night. Though the sky changes with the seasons, the five Northern circumpolar constellations – Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Draco, and Camelopardalis – are visible all-night long, every night of the years, so you can just walk outside and find they in the sky tonight!

Ursa Major – commonly known as the Big Dipper – is the Large Bear of the sky, while Ursa Minor is the Little Bear. Legend has it that Ursa Major was once the beautiful maiden Callisto and Ursa Minor was Arcas, the son she had with Greek god of thunder, Zeus. Zeus’s jealous wife – Hera, goddess of virtue and marriage – was out for the blood of Callisto and Arcas, so instead, Zeus turned them into bears to spare them from his wife’s wrath. Then, Zeus grabbed Callisto and Arcas by their bear tails and launched them into the night sky, where they forevermore reside as stars. To find Ursa Major, look for the bear shape in the image; for Ursa Minor, try to find Polaris – one of the brightest stars in the night sky, which always points North – and make out the tiny bear from there. 

As Cassiopeia is the Queen of the sky, Cepheus is the King. In Greek mythology, Cassiopeia and Cepheus were the mother and father of the beautiful maiden Andromeda before they were trapped in the sky. Cassiopeia boasted that Andromeda was more lovely than the sea nymphs, the Nereids, angering their father, Poseidon, god of the seas. So, Poseidon had Andromeda sacrificed to the sea monster Cetus. Then, Cassiopeia and Cepheus were exiled to the skies, where they will forever reside as Queen and King of the night. To identify, Cassiopeia looks for the letter “M” or “W,” and for Cepheus, looks for a pentagon. 

Draco represents the Dragon, present in pretty much all of human legend. When the gods were battling the Titans, cunning Athena – goddess of knowledge and war – attacked the Titan’s dragon, Draco. Knowing that Dracot’s snapping jaws could rip her in two, Athena instead grabbed his tail and swung him into the night sky, where he will remain forever trapped, with his Titan brothers defeated by the other gods and unable to free him. Draco’s constellation is located between Ursa Major and Minor: the best way to identify it is to look for the broken-up dragon bits, as in the image. 

Last and, quite honestly, least, Camelopardalis, the Giraffe. This constellation was created in 1614 by a German astronomer to fill the night sky: it doesn’t really look like a giraffe, nor does it have any particular story, but its name does have a funny origin. During the reign of Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, Egyptian Pharaoh Cleopatra brought giraffes to Rome as a gift. The Romans had never before seen a giraffe, so they didn’t know what to call it: Caesar decided that it had the body of a camel, but spots of a leopard, and so named it the Camelopardalis – needless to say, that name didn’t stick around. 

It may be tough to identify these constellations at first, but with time, they’ll become clear to you. Just keep on looking up into the night sky and try to match the basic shape of the constellations with the stars you see. No matter what, remember: these stars you are gazing at are the things of legend, and within their depths, an untold amount of history resides.