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Under The Martinborough Stars

August 24, 2021 August 2021 No Comments

Image credit: NASA.

Have you ever wondered where the constellations came from? Do you know your Crux from your Musca? Or Scorpius from Pavo? Who got to name them?

Humans are very good at seeing patterns in just about anything. Clouds. Toast. Rocky outcrops on Mars. Wherever we look we see a shape, pattern or a familiar face.

Way back in time, the first peoples across the globe were staring at these strange lights in the sky. They moved slowly throughout the year and you could remember you had to do something when you saw a particular one rise or set. They were pretty handy for planting, navigating or working out the times of the year.

Some of these bright lights could be seen in recognizable shapes, like crosses, triangles, squares and squashed squares. Look at any star map and you will see these simple shapes everywhere.

You could add these shapes together, so then you could create all sorts of familiar shapes. These stars became dogs, people, snakes or rivers (particularly good if there were no crosses, triangles or squares nearby) and stories were linked to them so you could remember their place in the sky.

The 12 Zodiac signs, the ones that everyone in the world can see were the first obvious seasonal markers. When a particular zodiac shape rose or set with the sun, that would be your birthday sign, your star sign depending where in the world you were. 

Every culture had their own set of stories to remember. It was useful to have objects, ideas, heroes and your mythology written in the stars.

However, as the age of science and communication approached roughly 100 years ago, people started communicating with others much further away. Imagine you were an astronomer here in NZ and you saw something strange in the sky. How would you describe the sky to someone outside of New Zealand? They wouldn’t have had the faintest idea of where you were looking.

A set of 88 constellations were created, mostly from the catalogue by the Ancient Greeks. These 88 constellations stand today, making it simple for communication and making sure that there are no gaps between constellation boundaries. The Crux, known here as the Southern Cross, is the smallest of the constellations, right in the middle of the Milky Way. 

Today we know our galaxy as the Milky Way, but it wasn’t always known by that name. But that’s a story for another day.

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