Looking up to the starry, starry sky By Stuart Atkinson, lifelong space enthusiast, astronomy educator and author Have you heard that we are ‘made of stardust’? It’s true. All the atoms and elements in our bodies were formed inside stars that lived, and died, billions of years ago… Stars are actually like people – they are born, live a life and then die. If you go out on a crisp winter’s night you will see the distinctive constellation of Orion low in the east, looking like an hourglass or, some think, a bow tie Orion is famous for his belt of three bright blue-white stars, but not many people know Orion has a sword to – and if you look at it through binoculars or a small telescope you’ll see its middle star looks a bit hazy… …that’s because it’s NOT a star, but a place where stars are being born: a nebula, a huge cloud of gas and dust, a stellar nursery where heat and pressure combine to make new stars. Our own Sun was born in a nebula like this one, around 5 billion years ago. The Orion nebula From Earth the stars appear to make patterns, or shapes, in the night sky. This is the most famous star pattern of all – the Big Dipper, or ‘Saucepan’ as some people call it. If you ‘Join the dots’ you really can see the shape of a dipper, or ladle, in the sky. The Big Dipper. Photo: Felix Wolf from Pixabay But the shape is misleading – in fact, it’s not actually real! We only see that pattern in the sky because those stars lie along the same ‘line of sight’ from Earth. They are all actually different distances away, but appear to be side by side in the sky, and the same distance away. It’s an optical illusion. …and in fact, the ‘Big Dipper’ isn’t actually a constellation. It is an ‘asterism’, an obvious pattern of stars that lies within the proper constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear. Unless you live somewhere really dark you won’t see the faint stars that make up the Bear’s legs and head, you’ll just see its hindquarters and tail – the ‘Big Dipper’. When you look up at the sky on a clear, dark night you can see around 6,000 stars with your naked eye. They just look like dots scattered at random across the sky, but they all belong to constellations that represent people, animals and objects from ancient times… The night sky is a huge picture book, and every star and constellation has a long story and history behind it. But you can’t learn all the names and shapes of the constellations in one night because the sky changes with time… It changes from hour to hour. Just as the Sun rises and sets, the stars rise and set too, crossing the sky as the hours pass. This is because the Earth is spinning in space, and as it revolves we see objects in the sky – stars, the Sun, the planets – moving across it, rising and then setting hours later. The sky also changes from week to week and month to month too. As Earth goes around the Sun we look out into the universe in different directions each season, so each season has its own sky with some stars unique to that time of the year. Only one star stays fixed in place – Polaris, the Pole Star. It is directly above the north pole of Earth so as Earth spins everything in the sky appears to whirl around the Pole Star. A camera aimed at the Pole Star, taking time lapse, images, can record the rotation of the sky. Star trails above Kendal Castle Photo: Stuart Atkinson And when the sky darkens and the stars come out you’re looking at the stuff of life itself, twinkling and shining in the darkness. And at that very same moment, as you gaze up at the stars, there are almost certainly other living creatures, also made of stardust, looking back at you from across the universe. To read more from Stuart, try his children’s book: A Cat’s Guide to the Night Sky Watch Orion appear in the Cumbrian sky in this little video. Help support more of our work to protect Cumbria's Dark Skies from light pollution, and become a member.