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Name: Tatiana
Status: student
Grade: 6-8
Location: IA
Country: USA
Date: Winter 2012-2013


Question:
We are working on a project in our science class. The task was to propose a question, do research, and then create an end product. We know that new constellations can be discovered, but never newly formed. We were wondering what happens to these extremely old constellations, if a star IN the constellation dies? Is it possible? Would this destroy the constellation and the myth? What happens if the North Star were to die? Why has it lasted so long?


Replies:
What do you mean by forming or discovering a constellation? Constellations are not actual entities in Nature. They are simply definitions by astronomers deciding how to name the different sections of the universe.

It is sort of like the stripes on a parking lot. Cars can leave, enter, and move around, but the spaces are still the same spaces. As stars form, change, and move, the appearance of the sky and its constellations will change as well.

Richard E. Barrans Jr., Ph.D., M.Ed. Department of Physics and Astronomy University of Wyoming


Hi Tatiana,

Thanks for the question. I would like you to read some more on the Internet. I think you would benefit by reading about the life cycle of a star. I would like to remind you that a constellation consists of many stars which appear to us as being close together when in fact they are billions (or more) of miles apart. I would recommend reading on Wikipedia.

http://www.nasa.gov

http://www.jpl.nasa.gov

http://teachspacescience.stsci.edu/cgi-bin/ssrtop.plex

http://www.esa.int/esaCP/index.html

http://www.esa.int/esa-mmg/mmghome.pl

I hope this helps. Please let me know if you have any other questions. Thanks Jeff Grell


Dear Tatiana,

Good question. If a small star in a constellation were to "disappear" somehow, which is virtually impossible for hundreds of millions of years, the shape of the constellation could be changed but not the constellation itself. So what will happen is that the motions of the stars themselves will distort the constellation figures over a long time, ruining them. The Pole Star will survive for billions of years but will not always be the pole star. As the Earth wobbles (precesses), it changes the pole star every few centuries.

SIncerely David H. Levy


Hi Tatiana,

Your concern and question is very valid. Stars are born, live and die.

Try to keep in mind that the constellations are only valid from Earth. These stars exist in 3-D, some are closer and some are farther away. Some of those constellation "stars" are actually galaxies or clusters. We see them as flat because we are on a single point of the Universe.

Our astronomer predecessors were very astute, but were also very imaginative. They were as artistic as much as they were scientists of their time. They formulated stories of greatness and much complexity regarding the mysterious lights in the night skies. I would suggest that regardless of the disappearance of a star, and thus the continuation of a constellation, the stories, myth and the constellation would live on through all recorded astronomical history.

Polaris is a triple star system that pulsates regularly, we visually see it as a point because the cluster is 434 LY away. That is easy to visualize: Think of a cluster of trees, ask someone to drive away from them and when you are far away-- the cluster looks like a single large bush.

Because it is a cluster, Polaris will be there for a long time. But it will appear to move due to Earth's precession.

If a star does die, then we would see that event as a missing star in that constellation.

Good luck with the constellations! Peter E. Hughes, Ph.D. Monadnock Radio Observatory Milford, NH



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