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Constellations

Every Culture Finds Meaning in the Night Sky

For thousands of years people have turned to the stars and Moon to predict weather, determine crop planting times, hold rituals, or explain human and animal behavior. Through origin stories and folklore, people create connections and find order in a chaotic world. Although nature is unpredictable, the night sky is constant.

ND Night Sky 360° video
Image of the big dipper constellation

What we do

Looking Up at the Night Sky

The Sun, Moon, planets, and stars have inspired mythological stories in cultures around the world.

The Moon

Our Moon has perhaps inspired more folklore than any other celestial body.

The Sun

Many cultures considered the appearance of the rising and setting of the Sun to be significant.

The Stars

For most of human history, people studied and learned astronomy with the naked eye.

The Planets

Many of the planets are visible to the naked eye. Some people recognize them as wandering stars, others as deities or bearers of the seasons. Lakota women incorporated the Morning Star (Venus) into their quilts.

Starry Nights

360° Video Guide to the North Dakota Night Sky

ND Night Sky 360° video

Starry Nights

360° Guide to the North Dakota Night Sky

Transcript

North Dakota has a great view of the Milky Way. In this video we will teach you tricks on how to navigate the night sky, even if you don't have a telescope.

We've come to the Menoken Indian Village State Historic Site in North Dakota to enjoy a great winter view of the night sky.

This is a 360 video so you can get your bearings by moving your device or by clicking and dragging as we begin. Look for the north, south, east, and west markings to help you get your bearings throughout this video. Depending on the season your view of the stars may be slightly different but remember any clear night away from the city lights is a good night for sky watching.

If you look up just after sunset you will start to see a few points of light. These are stars or planets depending on the season. As it grows dark look to the north. You will see a familiar group of stars. Four stars form the bowl and three stars form the handle. The Big Dipper can only be seen in the northern sky. It is sometimes called the plow and is part of a larger constellation, Ursa Major, which many different civilizations saw as a big bear.

Let's draw a line from the Big Dipper to the Little Dipper. This is the North Star, Polaris. On a clear night, you will first spot this bright star that forms the handle of the Little Dipper. People used to navigate by measuring the angle of the horizon and North Star to determine how far north they were.

Turning east, let's draw a line from Polaris to another well-known constellation, Orion the Hunter. Betelgeuse, the star of his right shoulder, is one of the brightest stars. A red supergiant, the star is nearly at the end of its life. Someday Betelgeuse will run out of fuel, collapse under its own weight, and then rebound in a spectacular supernova explosion. But don't worry, when it goes supernova it won't affect Earth.

Orion's belt is made up of three bright stars. The Orion Nebula, a formation of dust, hydrogen, helium and other ionized gases is found near the middle star that hangs off of Orion's belt.

Going straight from Orion's belt we can draw a line to Sirius, the dog star. Sirius is the brightest star visible from anywhere on Earth. Looking up from North Dakota you can spot it in the south as it moves across the night sky as part of the constellation Canis Major.

In Indian mythology, Sirius was sometimes known as Svana the dog of Prince Yudhistira. The prince and his dog made it to the gates of heaven but the gatekeeper denied the dog entrance. The prince said that without his dog, he would renounce even heaven and his loyalty earned them both entrance through the gates and into the night sky.

Have you ever heard the phrase the dog days of summer? It's an expression that dates back to the ancient Romans. In the summer months, Sirius rises just before the Sun and they associated the dog star with the hottest days of the year.

Going back to Orion, draw a line from his belt in the other direction past Aldebaran until you run into a cluster of blue stars called the Pleiades. Many cultures have observed this group of stars being chased across the winter sky in the northern hemisphere. To the Lakotas, they were seven girls chased into the sky by a bear. The Assiniboine saw seven brothers who climbed a spiderweb to the sky where they stayed together in comfort. In both myths and science, the Pleiades are considered sibling stars. Modern astronomers say the Pleiades were born from the same cloud of gas and dust and shine blue in the winter sky.

Let's return to Polaris, the North Star. In the winter months, the constellation Cassiopeia moves right over the North Star. In the early evening this queen of the night sky looks like a W or an M depending on where you're standing. She sits in the glowing boulevard of stars that makes up our view of the Milky Way galaxy. From Cassiopeia, let's head west to the constellation Pegasus.

In Greek mythology, Pegasus was a divine winged horse. This constellation is known for the great square. We can use the great square of Pegasus to find the Andromeda galaxy. Before midnight when the Moon is hidden, locate the constellation of Pegasus. Now think of the square as a baseball diamond. From the second base, star hop along the legs of Pegasus. An imaginary line through these two stars points to the andromeda galaxy. At 2.5 million light years away, it's the most distant galaxy you can see with your naked eye.

Our last constellation, Draco, is a good example of circumpolar constellations. Circumpolar constellations are out all night long, every night of the year, never falling below the horizon. There are five circumpolar constellations north of the Equator: Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, and the great dragon of the north, Draco. Draco is big. He covers a lot of the night sky and serpentines his tail between the Big and Little Dipper. Draco means dragon in Latin and many cultures have associated this series of stars with a dragon.

Look for meteor showers known as Draconoids in October. You might just see a meteor shoot across the sky or maybe the Northern Lights we'll put on a show. The aurora borealis dance over North Dakota during high levels of solar activity. The stronger the solar wind blows, the more active and bright the aurora.

No special equipment is required to see stars constellations and galaxies millions of light years away. Just you, a bit of curiosity, and a whole lot of North Dakota night sky.