Thinking Outside the Classroom: Exploring the many stories of the night sky
February 4, 2013
As I was driving a shuttle van back to Frisco Elementary School the other night, a 4th grade girl remarked to me, “I can’t believe that was a real laser!” in reference to our exciting star gazing opportunity earlier that evening.
I have been lucky enough to be a part of the Keystone Science School’s 4th Grade Astronomy Night two years in a row, and will always remember the shrieks of excitement as boys and girls see the moon’s craters up close, or learn that the magnificent star they’re looking at is actually Jupiter.
My favorite way to explore the night sky will always be to take it all in at once, gazing up towards trillions of celestial objects beaming down at me, feeling proud to be able to identify even a small number of them by name. And though the stories attached to the constellations we recognize are only reflective of the prominent cultures of our past and present, sharing them always feels more important than that.
One of the most well recognized constellations is Orion, visible only to us in the winter months. What many people don’t realize is that what most people refer to as “Orion” is simply the three brilliant stars of his belt. His body extends in both directions of the belt, occupying a significant amount of the southern night sky. Most commonly known as The Hunter, Orion is fabled to be the greatest hunter in the world (he’s even pointing his arrow at Taurus the Bull, located slightly west of Orion and easily identified by a prominent “V” shape). There are a number of Greek myths that explain Orion’s position in the sky. One claims that because of his immense strength, Orion also had an immense ego, claiming to be able to kill any animal in the world. As a response to his vanity, a small scorpion stung and killed him, leaving him to forever occupy the winter sky (just as the scorpion, Scorpio, will only appear in the summer months in a similar location).
Orion’s shoulder is marked by the red supergiant Betelgeuse, and his left leg is marked by the blue-white supergiant Rigel. Color tells us some interesting things about the life of a star. A red hue indicates stars that are ending their lifecycle, and blue stars are just beginning theirs. Stars are born as giant clouds of gas and dust, and over time, the particles of gas gravitate towards one another, causing the baby star to spin. This spinning can cause a star to heat up to 15,000,000 degrees Celsius, which results in the blue glow of young stars in the night sky. It will eventually stabilize and glow for up to one billion years like this (fun fact: this is the stage of life our sun is in). Later in a star’s life, it will turn into a red giant, where it expands and cools down, assuming a reddish tint.
A star’s final stage in life is determined by its size. A small star will eventually collapse inward and cease to shine once it uses all its energy. A large star, however, can explode into a supernova, which can reach up to 1,000,000,000 degrees Celsius! Shortly after this, it may be swallowed by its own gravity, becoming a black hole (this is where all those lost phones and left socks are, right?)
The next time you look up at the night sky, connect the dots and make up your own constellation story, and know that the stars fueling your imagination have an incredible life journey of their own.
Allie Goldberg is a program instructor at Keystone Science School. To learn more about the night sky, or for any other information, visit our website, keystonescienceschool.org, or give us a call at (970) 468-2098.