A warm evening…a blanket…a dark sky full of bright stars…these are the pieces of a perfect night for stargazing! Do you like to look up at the stars and WONDER about what’s up there? Are there aliens? What is life like on other planets? How many stars are there?

These are the kinds of questions it’s fun to WONDER about as you gaze at the stars. You might also enjoy picking out constellations.

Constellations are groups of stars in the sky that have been defined by and agreed upon by an international group of astronomers. Most constellations have a long history and were identified hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago.

The stars within a constellation can be incredible distances apart. Yet, when viewed from Earth’s night sky, they appear to be close together and form some sort of pattern.

For example, one of the most popular and easily-identifiable constellations is called Ursa Major, which means “The great bear.” Ursa Major is easy to identify because of seven of the stars within the constellation known as the Big dipper. The Big dipper, although sometimes referred to as a constellation, is actually an asterism.

An asterism is an interesting pattern of stars within a larger constellation. The Big dipper, also sometimes called the Plough, is made up of the seven brightest stars within Ursa Major.

Like all groups of stars, the position of the Big dipper changes throughout the year. In the summer sky, it’s usually not too difficult to find, though, as its unique ladle shape is easy to learn and spot.

You can also use two of the stars in the “cup” of the Big dipper to locate Polaris, the North star. Since the Big dipper orbits around the northern portion of the sky, African-American slaves in the 19th century often used the Big dipper, which many of them called “the Drinking gourd,” to guide them on their way toward freedom in the North.

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