Alaka Sanyal's Page
ENJOY THE STARS
A guide to constellations.
Constellations Are Mankind's Oldest Picturebook
How many of us take it as a fun watching and enjoying the night sky? Have you ever thought that :
A systematic study of stars and constellations,
Their locations and identification,
Need very little preparation!
And please be comfortable, we need no equipment,
Except our eyes for this very very
Millions of galaxies of various shapes and sizes are scattered in our Universe,
whose limits are unknown. We must remember that our Solar System
is located half way from the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way,
and the Sun is our nearest Star.
We use the term Light-Year to measure the distances of the
stars. The distance that light travels in one year, moving at
186,000, miles per second is known to us and on this scale we
measure the stars which are hundreds, thousands, and even millions
of light-years away.
Brightness of the stars is measured in terms of Magnitude.
There are 21 1st. Magnitude, about 50 2nd. Magnitude, and 150 3rd. Magnitude
stars, scattered all over in our Universe and they are constantly
increasing our excitement and curiosity.
About two thirds of all known stars are double or binary systems, such as
Mizar, Capella, Spica and so on. There are variable stars that
fluctuate in brightness. Mira, in Cetus (The Whale) is a famous
long period variable Star that shows extreme changes of brightness.
Most dramatic changes occur to the exploding stars, The Novae and
the Supernovae. Sometimes they rapidly grow in brilliance and then
fade away over months or years.
A poet says, `Please come back Suranjana, come back when the night
is filled with the silver fire of the Stars!' ( "Phire eso Suranjana, nakshatrer rupali aagun bhora rate." - J.Das )
Believe me, you can get a wonderful and unforgettable experience
watching a few Stars reveal their colours! Fly with me and look
at the bluish Vega, the orange-coloured Arcturus, the bluish-white
Regulus, the yellowish Capella, the reddish Betelgeuse and so on.
Now, this is the time to start spotting the Constellations. The
circumpolar constellations are easy to learn. We shall talk about
the North Circumpolar Constellations which are at about 40 Degrees
North latitude and this is the place where major constellations
can be properly identified.
Sit or lie down comfortably holding
a sky- chart over your head, placing the directions according to
the instructions. Look at the chart, then watch the sky and your
mind will fly away to these celestial beauties.
It remains always at the same place in the sky, almost exactly
North, often called NORTH STAR. Its distance is about 782
light-years away and it is a double star. (Bharatiya dharma-biswas
anujai kono kono Mahatma mrityur por ai dhruboloke sthan pan).
The familier Big Dipper (Saptarshi Mondol) which is only a part
of Ursa Major, the Great Bear, helps to locate the Polaris. The
two outer stars of Big Dipper's bowl always point the Pole star,
and are called Pointers. The middle star of Big Dipper is
called MIZAR (Bosistha). It is a double star and it is 78 light-
years away. ALCAID (Angira), near Mizar, is some 120 light-years
away. The faintly visible star by the side of Mizar is called
ALCOR (Arundhuti). Alcaid and Alcor are aiso called Horse and Rider.
Polaris is the tail star of Little Dipper or Little Bear.
It is a supergiant cepheid variable star whose magnitude
changes very slightly every four days. The two fairly bright
stars at Little Dipper's end of the bowl are called the
Guardians because they stand as if guarding the Pole Star.
It is very important to know that due to the 'wobble' of the Earth's
axis, the celestial pole shifts very slowly as the centuries go by.
So different stars become different Pole Stars at different times.
'Ek raja jai chole, ak raja aashe,
Mohakal bose sudhu nijo mone hanshe'
(Emperors come and go, and the heavens just smile on)
DRACO or the DRAGON
A Large, but not a very bright constellation. The long tail starts
10 Degrees from the Big Dipper's pointers. A string of stars
swing around the L.D. Two pairs of stars make the legs, a small
irregular quadrangle with two fairly bright stars make the head.
The front star in the Dragon's tail is Thuban. Once it was the
Pole Star by which the Egyptians constructed their famous Pyramids,
some four or five thousand years ago.
Small but bright in the Milky Way, easy to remember for its shape. Five bright
stars make a `W'or an `M' or a chair depending on how you look at it. The myth
says Cassiopeia was an Ethiopean queen and her husband was Cepheus.
A five-sided figure, closer to the North pole, by the side of
Cassiopeia. Draw a line from the pointers beyond the Pole star
and the line hits the king's cap. His three bright stars are
the candidates for the pole starship after 2000, 4000 and 6000
years from now. So he is waiting patiently for his important
role to play.
Some constellations of Spring and Summer
LEO or The LION
The best known,
and large zodiac constellation with three bright stars. The sickle or the backward
question mark forms the Lion's head. The brightest star is REGULUS (Mogha).
It is at the base of the sickle or near the paws of the Lion. Bluish-white Regulus,
186 light-years away, it is the faintest of our first magnitude stars, but shines
about twice as bright as Polaris. The Lion's tail shows another bright star, DENEBOLA
BOOTES or The HERDSMAN
the oldest constellations, looks like a man sitting and smoking a pipe. On the
other hand it is a kite- shaped figure extending to the Dipper's handle. It is
chasing the bears with two hunting dogs. Its magnificient giant star is orange
coloured ARCTURUS (Swati), which is about 40 light-years away and it is
the fourth brightest star.
Arcturus changes its place more rapidly in the sky than any
other bright stars.
CORONA BOREALIS or The NORTHERN CROWN
Look at the east of the Bootes. A semicircular arc, small but
graceful with the second magnitude GEMMA can be seen clearly.
LYRA or The LYRE
two stringed lyre. It is important for the splendor of blue-white coloured VEGA
(Abhijit). It stands fifth in the race and it is the brightest summer star,
only 26 light-years away.
CYGNUS or The SWAN
flies along the Milky Way, spreading wide his wings. A part of this magnificient
constellation is called Northern Cross. The milky way splits here into parallel
streams. The brighter star DENEB is in the tail of the swan, which is almost 500
light-years away. ALBERIO (Albireo), a third magnitude star is in the head
of the Swan (Bakamukh).
but dim constellation, this lies up side down, with a keystone shaped head, and
a man swinging a club, his favorite weapon.
AQUILA or The EAGLE
A large constellation, lying just south of the Lyra. Most
important star is ALTAIR (Srabana). Yellowish-white Altair
is 16 light-years away and it is a first magnitude star.
The Eagle, with Altair, (which has two stars on two sides),
is flying towards the Swan to meet it head on. Altair, Vega
and Deneb form a huge triangle.
SAGITTARIUS or The ARCHER
Trace it when the sky is quite clear. The Eagle's tail points out this beautiful
constellation. A group of four stars known as the MILK DIPPER forms a quadrangle
The Archer's head has a feather and his bow is pointed
toward the Scorpion.
SCORPIUS or The SCORPION
It is in the Southern part of the sky, an easily detectable
beautiful constellation. Its shape is like a fish-hook and
it is in the Zodiac. Its most brilliant star is ANTARES
(Jyesthaya), a reddish, first magnitude star. It is
a super giant star, 300 times the Sun's diameter and the
distance is about 300 Light-years.
SAGITTA or The ARROW
A strikingly beautiful looking small constellation, this
can be seen between the heads of the Swan and the Eagle.
DELPHINUS or The DOLPHIN
On a clear dark night, the beautiful shape of a Dolphin,
(the stars are very closed together and make up the body),
swims outside the Milky way.
A close pair of stars are in the Scorpion's tail called
PISCIS AUSTRINUS or The SOUTHERN FISH
This constellation is made of faint stars but famous for
bluish-white FOMALHOUT, one of the 21 brightest stars.
Draw a line through the two bright stars on the Pegesus
side of the Great Square and go straight to the far down
to discover the brilliant Fomalhaut in a very solitary
place. This star announces the coming of fall (autumn).
GEMINI or the TWINS
are in the Zodiac and we need a clear night to find the whole figure. The two
bright stars, CASTOR and POLLUX (Punarbasu) mark the twins' heads. Castor
is white and a second magnitude star. Pollux is yellowish coloured, and a first
Magnitude star. The two stars are 5 degrees apart from each other. Castor is a
triple star and each of its three components is a double star, making six stars
in all !
VIRGO or The VIRGIN
She is lying on her back. A Y-shaped line of stars extends
towards Denebola of Leo's tail. Her head is near the tail.
Virgo carries her precious jewel SPIKA.It is a first magnitude star,
bluish-white in colour and about 190 Light-years
away. Virgo is a constellation of the Zodiac and is a cluster
of several hundred Galaxies about 14 Million Light-years away.
SPICA, ARCTURUS, COR-CAROLI AND DENEBOLA form the VIRGIN'S
Some constellations of Autumn
THE BIG SQUARE
If you look at the evening sky and if you have a Calender
Chart with you, you can easily find an imperfect but big
square which is the part of both Andromeda and Pegasus.
The chained lady's head is one of the four stars of the
Square. The bright stars form one side of the body and a
leg. The other leg is formed by dimmer stars. When the
night is dark and clear, even unaided eyes can see a small
hazy spot, the famous Andromeda Nebula, near the place
where the leg bends. Andromeda in chains extends Eastward,
from Pegesus, and two long spreading lines of stars meet at
AlPHERATZ (Purba-bhadropodo), a famous triple star.
PEGASUS or The FLYING HORSE
Pegesus is known as the Winged Horse, is a beautiful constellation to look at.
Three of the Square's four stars make the triangular wings of the horse. The 2nd.
Magnitude star Alpheratz is at the point where the two constellations join.
Here is a story which helps to remember some constellations
which are in the same section of the sky:
Cassiopeia, an Ethiopian queen and her husband Cepheus
had a beautiful daughter Andromeda. Cassiopeia was very
proud of her daughter's beauty and made the sea nymphs
angry and jealous. They requested the sea God Poseidon
to send a monster, a Whale, to ravage Ethiopia's coast.
The helpless father Cepheus chained his daughter to a rock
to satisfy the monster. Fortunately, Perseus, the hero
was flying by. He killed the Whale, liberated Andromeda,
married her and took her away with him on his winged horse
During the late Autumn or early Winter, when Cassiopeia is
high up in the sky, we can see Cepheus, Andromeda, Perseus,
Pegasus and the Whale dominating the night sky.
AURIGA or The CHARIOTEER
constellation lies to the east of the Perseus, and is named after the mythical
inventor of the chariot. It looks like a human face with a pointed cap. The charioteer's
eye is the bright and brilliant tripled star `CAPELLA' (Bramhahriday),
yellowish in colour, almost as bright as Vega, and 42 light-years away.
CETUS or The WHALE
Large but dim constellation, famous for the variable star
MIRA which means ` beautiful' in Latin.
Some constellations of Winter
TAURUS or The BULL
represents the disguised form of Zeus or Jupiter who is eager to fetch his girl
friend Europa. The forepart of the Bull is brighter and the hind part is much
Most conspicuous stars in Taurus are the HYADES, which form
his face. This clear V-shaped star group is unmistakable
and here we can watch the Bull's brightest star, ALDEBARAN,
(Rohini). It is an orange-coloured first magnitude double star,
about the diameter of the Sun and 55 Light-years away.
Taurus is a large constellation in the Zodiac, famous for the
well known group of stars, PLEIADES. Both Pleiades and
Hyades are clusters of stars travelling together through
ORION or The HUNTER
remarkable for his majestic appearence. When he is high up in the sky, we cannot
miss his remarkable belt made of three bright stars ina a row. By profession he
is a hunter with a raised club, a shield and a sword dangling from his belt. No
other constellation has so many bright stars, two of first magnitude and five
of second magnitude.
Orion is proud of BETELGEUSE (Adra), in his left shoulder,
a reddish, variable super giant star, about 300 light-years
away and 400 times the sun's diameter.
RIGEL (Banraja), the bluish-white giant star, 33 times the
diameter of our sun, over 500 light years away, is the right foot
of the hunter. From Orion's belt hangs the faint sword made of
faint stars. One of them looks slightly fuzzy, this is the great
Orion Nebula-M 42.
CANIS MAJOR or The BIG DOG
It is in the far south and not very clear, but it is the proud carrier of the
brightest star, SIRIUS (Lubdhak or Shaun). It 8.8 light years away, one
of our closest neighbours among the stars, and it outshines all the other stars
when it is up in the sky.
CANIS MINOR or The LITTLE D0G
This constellation carries PROCYON (Proshaun). It is
yellowish in colour and its name, in Greek, means
"Before the dog".
We can see seven first magnitude stars glittering brilliantly
around Orion, at which time the sky looks striking . Six of
them form a vast hexagon. They are: CAPELLA, POLLUX, PROCYON
SIRIUS, RIGEL AND ALDEBERAN. More or less in the centre sits
BETELGEUSE, wearing a red robe.
After enjoying the splendor and beauty of this region, look at the
right side of the Orion's feet. This place is known as the "Wet
Region" because we can find the ERIDAUS RIVER, The WHALE and
WATER CARRIER and The FISHES having not so bright stars.
HYDRA or The WATER SNAKE
A large constellation having only one well known star: ALPHARD,
At about 40 degree south latitude, the main circumpolar constellations are CRUX
or the SOUTHERN CROSS, KARINA or the KEEL of the ship ARGO, VOLONS, the FLYING
FISH, DORADO, HYDRUS, TUCANA, OCTANS, PAVO, ARA, TRIANGULAM AUSTRALE, AND CENTAURUS.
CARINA or the KEEL of the SHIP has its brightest star,
CANOPUS (Agastya). It is the second in the family of the
stars, 100 light-years away, yellowish-white in colour,
and 2000 times as luminous as the sun.
Star-gazing is an interesting hobby and it has no geographic
limits. This is a very short description collected from
some books and charts. " What star is that? " is an age old
question and if someone is eager to know about the constellations
and the bright stars, no doubt it will help to go deeper
into the stream of astronomy. Good by and good luck.
Back to Alaka Sanyal's Page
Click here to send me an email message
© Alaka Sanyal 1997 - 2000