20. In the World of Stars

We have already learnt about galaxies and stars as well as the solar system and its different components. Stars are born out of nebulae. Nebulae are clouds made up mainly of hydrogen gas and dust particles. The particles in these clouds are attracted towards one another due to the force of gravity. As a result, the cloud contracts and becomes dense and spherical in shape. At the same time, the pressure of the gas at the core of the cloud increases causing the temperature to rise tremendously and energy generation processes start there. Such a spherical cloud of hydrogen is called a ‘star’. Later, processes such as contraction, expansion, rise in temperature, etc. bring about changes in the nature of the star. These changes occur over a very long period of time and constitute the lifecycle of stars. The different forms of the stars at various stages during this lifecycle are identified as different types of stars.

Our solar system is a tiny part of a galaxy called the Milky Way, which is many, many times larger than the solar system. There are lakhs of stars in the Milky Way, some of them being many times bigger than our Sun. Some of them have their own planetary systems. Stars in the Milky Way show a great diversity in colour, brightness, as well as size. Some stars, which appear to be close to one another making a particular figure are together known as a constellation. We shall learn more about constellations in this chapter. But, before that, let us learn a few basic concepts related to sky watching.

Sky watching

               Stand still in an open space and look into the distance. What do you notice about the ground and the sky? Now, still looking into the distance, turn around yourself and observe the ground and the sky as you do so.

Far away, the sky seems to be touching the ground. The line at which they meet is called the horizon. While turning around oneself, the horizon will be seen to form a circle and on looking up, the sky will appear to be a sphere based on this circle. The stars and planets moving in the sky appear to be moving on this sphere. This virtual sphere is called the celestial sphere. The circular horizon divides this sphere into two halves.

  1. Zenith : While standing on the ground, the point on the celestial sphere exactly above our head is called the zenith.
  2. Nadir : While standing on the ground, the point on the celestial sphere exactly below our feet is called the nadir.
  3. Celestial poles : If we extend the axis of rotation of the earth in the north and south directions it will penetrate the celestial sphere at points called the celestial North Pole and the celestial South Pole, respectively.
  4. Meridian : In astronomy, the great circle which passes through both the celestial poles and the observer’s zenith and nadir is called a meridian.
  5. Celestial equator : If we uniformly expand earth’s equator in all directions indefinitely, it will penetrate the celestial sphere along a circle. This circle is known as the celestial equator. It is in the same plane as the earth’s equator.
  6. Ecliptic : The earth moves around the sun, but, seen from the earth, the sun appears to move along a circle on the celestial sphere. This circle describing the apparent motion of the sun around the earth is called the ecliptic.


A group of stars occupying a small portion of the celestial sphere is called a constellation. Some of these stars appear to form certain figures of animals, humans or objects. These figures have been named after certain events or beliefs of the times when the constellations were identified. In this way, western observers have divided the celestial sphere into 88 constellations. Similarly, ancient western astronomers put forward the idea of 12 zodiac signs, whereas Indian astronomers suggested the 27 nakshatras.

Zodiac sign : The ecliptic has been imagined to be divided into 12 equal parts. Thus each part subtends 30 degrees at the centre of the celestial sphere. Each of these parts is called a raashi or zodiac sign. They are named Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces.

 Nakshatra : The moon completes one revolution around the earth in approximately 27.3 days. The portion traversed by the moon in one day is called a nakshatra. So if we divide 360 degrees into 27 equal parts, each part is about 13 degrees and 20 minutes. A nakshatra is known from the brightest star that it contains. This brightest star is called the yogatara. Which nakshatra we can see during a sky watch depends upon the position of the earth along its orbit.

Getting to know some constellations

  1. During summer nights one can see a particular arrangement of seven stars. We call them Saptarshi. In the month of February, this constellation rises around 8 pm in the north-east. It is on the meridian in the month of April and in the month of October, it sets around 8 pm. As the name suggests, Saptarshi is a group of seven bright stars. It is in the shape of a quadrangle with a tail made up of three stars. It thus resembles a kite and can be easily recognized. If we extend one side of the quadrangle, it reaches the Pole Star or Polaris as shown in figure 20.3. Different countries have different names for this constellation. In English it is called the Great Bear.
  2. The constellations of Saptarshi and Sharmishtha or Cassiopeia are useful in locating the Pole Star. Sharmishtha is made up of five bright stars which are distributed along the figure of the letter M. The perpendicular bisector of the line joining the third and fourth stars in Sharmishta goes towards the Pole Star. (See figure.) The Pole Star has Saptarshi on one side and Sharmishtha on the other. As Sharmishtha sets, Saptarshi rises. Thus, we can always use either one or the other as a reference point on any given night.
  3. Mrug nakshatra or Orion has very bright stars. On winter nights, they can be easily identified. It has seven – eight stars of which four are at the corners of a quadrangle. The line passing through the three middle stars of the constellation, when extended, meets a very bright star. This is Vyadh or Sirius. During the month of December, Mruga nakshatra rises at 8 pm on the eastern horizon. It is on the meridian during February and in June, it sets around 8 pm.
  4. Vrushchik or Scorpio is a constellation with 10 to 12 stars. Jyeshtha or Antares is the brightest among them. This constellation is below the equator, in the sky of the southern hemisphere. In the third week of April, it can be seen in the eastern sky a few hours after sunset.
    1.Why is the Pole Star important for sky watch ?
    2. What is the relation between the Pole Star and the constellationsSaptarshi and Sharmishtha ?

Make one friend stand as the sun at the centre of the circle. Now, move along a smaller circle around the sun, as if you are the earth, facing the sun all the time. What do you notice as you move along this circular orbit ? Ask your friends to take turns to do the same. Discuss what everybody sees.

The observer looking at the sun sees not only the sun but also a constellation behind the sun. The constellation cannot be seen in bright sunlight, but it is indeed present behind the sun. As the earth changes its position, a different constellation or zodiac sign or raashi appears behind the sun. This is what we express when we say that the sun enters a particular zodiac sign or raashi. For example, on Makar Sankranti we say that the sun enters Makar raashi (Capricorn zodiac sign).

When the earth is at A, for an observer on the earth, the sun appears to be in the Scorpio zodiac sign. When the earth moves from A to B, the observer will say that the sun has entered Libra. In reality, the sun does not move, but we perceive it as moving due to the motion of the earth around it. This motion of the sun is called its apparent motion and its path is called the apparent path. The rising of the sun in the east and its setting in the west is also an apparent motion. You might have heard some elders saying that a particular nakshatra is in the rising and now prevails. It means that, at that time, if you look at the sun from the earth, that particular nakshatra is behind the sun and gives you an idea about the position of the earth revolving around the sun.