Celestial Tour: Dark Constellations

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Although dark to our unaided eyes and to sensors in a visible-light telescope, the shadowy dust of the Milky Way emits a bright infrared glow.

Produced by the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Office of Public Outreach in collaboration with NASA’s Universe of Learning partners: Caltech/IPAC, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and Sonoma State University.
  • Panorama of the Milky Way over Fisher Towers, Utah, April 28, 2017: Photograph by Zolt Levay 
  • Views of the night sky with maps of sky cultures created using Stellarium v. 0.18.0
  • Modern western constellations: Illustrations by Johannes and Elisabetha Hevelius, Hevelius Star Atlas, courtesy of the U.S. Naval Observatory and STScI
  • Hawaiian starlines: Sky culture by Nainoa Thompson; artwork by Kealoha Kaneakua
  • Traditional D(L)akota star knowledge: Paintings by Annette S. Lee, Native Skywatchers
  • Inca dark constellations: Painting by Miguel Araoz Cartagena, Archaeological Museum of Cusco
  • Alpha Centauri System, WFPC2 visible light image from the Hubble Space Telescope: ESA/Hubble & NASA
  • Beta Centauri System, infrared image from the Vector-APP coronagraph, Magellan Adaptive Optics (MagAO) instrument, Magellan Clay telescope, Las Campanas Observatory, Chile: Leiden University/University of Arizona
  • Lobster nebula, multi-wavelength image from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, ROSAT telescope, Spitzer Space Telescope, and United Kingdom Infrared Telescope: X-ray—NASA/CXC/PSU/L. Townsley, et al; optical—UKIRT; infrared—NASA/JPL-Caltech
  • Cat’s Paw nebula, ground-based optical telescope: George Varouhakis
  • Central Milky Way, ESO GigaGalaxy Zoom visible light mosaic from ESO’s Paranal Observatory: ESO/S. Guisard
  • Lobster nebula and Cat’s paw nebula, infrared image from the Herschel Space Telescope: ESA/Herschel/PACS, SPIRE/Hi-GAL Project
  • Inca dark constellations: Based on painting by Miguel Araoz Cartagena, Archaeological Museum of Cusco
  •  Kamilaroi sky culture: Research by Robert Fuller, Macquarie University
  • Arabic sky culture: Images prepared by Kutaibaa Akraa
  • Panorama of the Milky Way over the ESO Very Large Telescope, Cerro Paranal, Chile: John Colosimo/ESO
  • Written by Margaret W. Carruthers
  • Designed by Dani Player
  • Science review lead: Dr. Brandon Lawton
  • Education lead: Timothy Rhue II
  • Additional editorial input: Dr. Lynn Cominsky, Sonoma State University; Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt, Caltech/IPAC; Dr. Laura Peticolas, Sonoma State University; Dr. Marja Seidel, Caltech/IPAC; Amelia Chapman, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • Music from APM


 Image of the Milky Way with silhouettes of rock formations in front. 

Text, dark constellations. 

Globe with a point at Utah, United States. Text, Panorama of the Milky Way Utah, United States. 

For millennia, people have been captivated by the broad river of light, the milky way, and the patterns of stars that light up the night sky. 

The galaxy. Greek figures mapped onto the constellations. 

Text, From these patterns arose constellations and stories of heroes and tricksters, gods and goddesses, creation and destruction. 

Text, Modern Western constellations based on ancient Greek and Islamic astronomy. 

Hawaiian starlines used by Polynesian navigators. Different patterns map onto stars. 

Traditional Dakota, or Lakota, star knowledge, north central United States and Canada. 

Different figures. 

Point on globe at Utah, United States, 44 degrees north. 

Point at Cusco, Peru, 13 degrees south. 

Five hundred years ago, from the peaks of the Andes Mountains in south america, the Inca civilization had its own view of the night sky. 

The Inca constellations were assembled not only from bright points of light, but also from diffuse glowing regions and dark patches in between. 

A figure in the sky. Text, painting of the inca view of the night sky,, Cusco, Peru. 

For the incas, the band of the Milky Way was the celestial river, Mayu, the source of earth's water. 

The dark clouds, or yana phuyu, were animals that came to drink from the life-giving river. 

Mach acuay, the serpent. 

Hanp atu, the toad. Yutu tinamou, the partridge. Llamacnawin, eyes of the mother llama, unallamach, baby llama, atoq, the fox, micheq, the shepherd, 

Telescopes on the ground and in space provide yet another view of the figures in the night sky. 

With telescopes we can see that each of the mother llama's bright eyes is composed of a small group of stars. 

Zooms in on two stars in the constellation. Alpha centauri system, riger kentaurus, visible light. Beta centauri system, hadar. Infrared light. 

The fox's red eyes are clouds of glowing gas and starlit dust known as nebulae. 

Zooms in on the constellation. Lobster nebula, x ray visible, and infrared light. Cat's paw nebula, visible light. 

And the dark bodies of the animals are not just empty voids. 

Zooms in on Milky Way. Central Milky Way, visible light. 

They are dust clouds so dense that they block the visible light of more distant stars almost completely. It is within and from these dense clouds of dust that new stars, and new planetary systems, are born. 

Although it is dark to our unaided eyes and to the sensors in a visible light telescope, the shadowy dust of the milky way emits a bright infrared glow. Lobster Nebula and Cat's Paw nebula, infrared light. 

While our eyes allow us to see the energy of hot stars and gas of the animal's eyes, the infrared telescope reveals the energy emitted by their warm dusty bodies. 

Panorama of the milky way, Cerro Paranal, Chile. Buildings in a deserted area. 

Whether viewed through the lens of human culture or the optics of a telescope, stories of the cosmos are written in the light and silhouettes of the night sky.