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Sierra Daily

02/10/2011

Astronomy: Draw Your Own Constellation

Heart Nebula

The Heart Nebula in Cassiopeia. Credit: Hunter Wilson

I was at my children’s school today, shelving books for next week’s book fair. One of the books for sale, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is a favorite of mine. In the book, the main character, an autistic boy named Christopher, often thinks about astronomy and space. In one instance, he says, “People say that Orion is called Orion because Orion was a hunter and the constellation looks like a hunter with a club and a bow and arrow … But this is really silly because it is just stars, and you could join up the dots in any way you wanted, and you could make it look like a lady with an umbrella who is waving … And there aren't any lines in space, so you could join bits of Orion to bits of Lepus or Taurus or Gemini and say that they were a constellation called the Bunch of Grapes….”

Christopher’s right. The stars in the sky can be whatever constellation you want them to be. Even though the constellations were named thousands of years ago, there have been changes through the years: some added, some taken away, some split into new constellations. And there’s nothing that says you can’t create your own constellation. It may not be officially recognized, but it will make for a one-of-a-kind Valentine’s gift.

This Valentine’s evening, take your special someone outside (and it is supposed to be warmer across much of the US on the 14th!) and show the stars to your beloved. You might want to plan ahead and do a little stargazing before that night, so you have an idea of just what your constellation will be. Make up shapes and stories for something that has meaning for the two of you. Cassiopeia could be an E, M, or W. Gemini the Twins could be two sweethearts holding hands. Be creative and find your own story.

For those of you who are more traditional, you can view the Heart Nebula this Valentine’s weekend. Located in the constellation Cassiopeia, the Heart Nebula (IC 1805) is magnitude 6.5 and visible through moderate telescopes. A cluster of stars at the center creates the red glow. This “heart” lies 7,500 light-years away. A bonus nebula lies to the left of the heart. This is IC 1848, the Soul Nebula. The Heart and Soul Nebula would be a unique way to end a great date.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She is currently the Feature Writer for Astronomy and Space at Suite101.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

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