Ever since humans started looking up at the sky it has been a common practice to clump various stars together in connect-the-dots stick-figure patterns. The grouping of stars into constellations is arbitrary, and the stars that get grouped together are usually not even physically related to one another. From our vantage point they look close together but are in actuality, vast distances apart.
Archaeologists have identified what might be drawings of the night sky in caves that may be as old some 17,000 years old! But the ancient Greeks were the first to describe about half of the constellation that became part of the official 88 we recognize today as early as 350 BC. Later, between the 16th and 17th century European astronomers added new ones after beginning to explore the southern hemisphere.
Different cultures have had different constellations, although a few of the more obvious ones tend to recur frequently, e.g., Orion and Scorpius. We made up stories and gave names to the patterns we saw and those names and stories became the constellations we recognize now.
List of the current 88 constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union, and their meanings:
|Andromeda, The Chained Lady||Circinus, compass||Lacerta, lizard||Piscis Austrinus, southern fish|
|Antlia, air pump||Columba, dove||Leo, lion||Puppis, poop deck|
|Apus, Bird of Paradise||Coma Berenices, Berenice‘s hair||Leo Minor, lesser lion||Pyxis, mariner’s compass|
|Aquarius, water-bearer||Corona Australis, southern crown||Lepus, hare||Reticulum, eyepiece graticule|
|Aquila, eagle||Corona Borealis, nothern crown||Libra, balance||Sagitta, arrow|
|Ara, alter||Corvus, crown||Lupus, wolf||Sagittarius, archer|
|Aries, ram||Crater, cup||Lynx, lynx||Scorpius, scorpion|
|Auriga, charioteer||Crux, southern cross||Lyra, harp||Sculptor, sculptor|
|Boötes, herdsman||Cygnus, swan or northern cross||Mensa, Table Mountain (South Africa)||Scutum, shield|
|Caelum, chisle||Delphinus, dolphin||Microscopium, microscope||Serpens, snake|
|Camelopardalis, giraffe||Dorado, goldfish||Monoceros, unicorn||Sextans, sextant|
|Cancer, crab||Draco, dragon||Musca, fly||Taurus, bull|
|Canes Venatici, hunting dogs||Equuleus, pony||Norma, carpenter’s level||Telescopium, telescope|
|Canis Major, greater dog||Eridanus, river Eridanus||Octans, octant||Triangulum, triangle|
|Canis Minor, lesser dog||Fornax, chemical furnace||Ophiuchus, serpent-bearer||Triangulum Australe, southern triangle|
|Capricornus, sea goat||Gemini, twins||Orion, the mythical character||Tucana, toucan|
|Carina, keel||Grus, crane||Pavo, peacock||Ursa Major, great bear|
|Cassiopeia, the mythical character||Hercules, the mythical character||Pegasus, the mythical winged horse||Ursa Minor, lesser bear|
|Centaurus, centaur||Horologium, pendulum clock||Perseus, the mythical character||Vela, sails|
|Cepheus, the mythical character||Hydra, mythical creature||Phoenix, pheonix||Virgo, virgin or maiden|
|Cetus, sea monster or whale||Hydrus, lesser water snake||Pictor, easel||Volans, flying fish|
|Chamaeleon, chameleon||Indus, Indian (American indigenous)||Pisces, fishes||Vulpecula, fox|
Originally the constellations were defined informally by the shapes made by their stars connect-the-dots pattern, but astronomers decided it would be helpful to have an official set of constellation boundaries. This way new stars, or any other objects, could be named according to which constellations boundaries they reside in.
As you may have noticed there are some patterns we all know that are not included in the list, such as the Big Dipper. Those patterns are known as asterisms. Historically, without an “official” list, there was really no difference between a constellation and an asterism. Anyone could arrange and name a grouping which might or might not be generally accepted.
Most constellations, when connected together, do not look much like what they are supposed to represent. For that reason may have been given nicknames when the lines are drawn differently. One example of this is the stars of Cassiopeia, which form a W, is often used as a nickname.
Other types of asterisms include names given to a portion of a constellation, one well known example being Orion’s Belt. Or are made up of stars from one constellation, but do not refer to the main figure, like the bow and arrow of the Archer that form a teapot. There is even a bit of nebulosity near the “spout” to serve as steam! There are even asterisms that form from more than one constellation.
Every morning when I leave for work I make sure to take a moment to look up at the at the dark sky and trying to make out the constellations. Living in the city makes it hard because of the light pollution but of the ones I can see my favorite is Orion. It was the first constellation I learned to recognize. The hunter is most visible here in the northern hemisphere in the winter months and can be found hanging out over the roof of my house in the mornings.
If you’d like to learn how to identify the constellations visible from where you are there a few phone apps. There’s Google Sky Map for Android, which I use, and love, and I’m sure there is something similar on iPhone. All I have to do is turn on my GPS and point my phone up at the sky and it shows me the positions of the various celestial objects. I especially like using it to point down at the ground to see what the night sky on the other side of the world looks like :)
Image: This false-color mosaic of the central region of the Coma cluster combines infrared and visible-light images to reveal thousands of faint objects (green). Follow-up observations showed that many of these objects, which appear here as faint green smudges, are dwarf galaxies belonging to the cluster. Two large elliptical galaxies, NGC 4889 and NGC 4874, dominate the cluster’s center. The mosaic combines visible-light data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (color coded blue) with long- and short-wavelength infrared views (red and green, respectively) from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons