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Learn the Constellations. Popular Constellation of the Night Sky

Night sky is utterly fascinating, and you never get tired of its mesmerising beauty. Astronomy is one of the most ancient sciences: people have been exploring the sky for thousands of years. However, it still has a lot of secrets. Since early days, people were trying to find signs in the night sky, and this is how constellations appeared: the brightest star patterns were associated with animals and objects, and given names.

If you are eager to learn the constellations, but books and sites on astronomy scare you away with loads of incomprehensible figures and too much theory, our guide is for you. Stay with us and you’ll find out interesting facts about constellations and learn how to locate some simple constellations in the night sky. Interested? Let’s jump right in!

What Is a Constellation?

Constellation, in astronomy, is a grouping of stars that were imagined to form obvious configurations of objects or creatures in the sky, like a shield or a winged horse. Although most of the constellations were catalogued in the 2nd century, constellation boundaries are a recent development of astronomy. In fact, constellation boundaries were officially adopted by the International Astronomical Union in 1928.

The International Astronomical Union exists to promote and safeguard the science of astronomy through international cooperation, and give official names to celestial bodies.

Types of Constellation

The 88 modern constellations fall into two categories according to the part of the celestial sphere they predominantly lie in: 36 in the northern sky, and the other 52 in the southern.

According to the time they appeared, constellations can be divided into two major groups:

  • ancient constellations, listed by Ptolemy in 150 AD;
  • all the rest constellations added in the 16th-18th centuries.

Amazing Astronomy: Quick Facts About Constellations

  • Hydra is the largest constellation. It occupies 3.16% of the sky.
  • The smallest constellation is Crux, which only takes up 0.17% of the sky.
  • Small patterns of stars are called asterisms, for example, the Big Dipper and Little Dipper.
  • There are 22 constellations whose names start with the letter C.
  • In modern astronomy, when a new star is discovered, it’s added to the constellation that it’s closest to.
  • Constellations consist of not just stars, they may contain nebulae and galaxies. For instance, the Andromeda constellation is home to the Andromeda galaxy, which is even larger than the Milky Way.
  • The Sun doesn’t belong to any constellation.
  • Zodiac signs are derived from the constellations that outline the ecliptic, the path followed by the Sun, Moon and planets.
  • Although the ecliptic passes through 13 constellations, astrologers use 12 of them, omitting Ophiuchus.
  • As the Earth orbits the Sun, different areas of the sky are visible in different times of the year. It also depends upon which hemisphere you’re in as well as your latitude.
  • Constellations that are located near the celestial poles, for instance, Ursa Major, remain visible throughout the year from one hemisphere.
  • Constellations are seen upside down from the Southern Hemisphere if compared to the Northern Hemisphere.

Names of Star Constellations

Star constellation names originated from a variety of sources, each of them having a different story and meaning behind it. As astronomy started to develop in Ancient Rome, Greece, and India, most of the names of star constellations came from these cultures. The oldest names of constellations, catalogued by Ptolemy in his 2nd century Almagest, mostly come from Greek and Roman mythology, while the most recent ones were named after scientific instruments and exotic animals.

Most popular constellation names associated with mythological characters include:

  • Perseus family: Perseus, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Cetus, Cepheus, Pegasus, and Auriga;
  • Hercules family: Hercules, Sagitta, Aquila, Lyra, Cygnus, Hydra, Crater, Corvus, Ophiuchus, Serpens, Centaurus, Lupus, Corona Australis, and Ara;
  • Orion family: Orion, Canis Major, Canis Minor, Lepus, and Monoceros;
  • Zodiac family: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpius, Sagittarius, Capricornus, Aquarius, and Pisces;
  • Ursa Major family: Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Draco, Canes Venatici, Boötes, and Corona Borealis.

Why weren’t so many of modern constellations registered by Ptolemy? They were unknown to ancient Roman astronomy as they lie in the far southern sky and are invisible from mid-northern latitudes.

However, as soon as Europeans started exploring the globe, Dutch travellers who sailed to Indonesia in 1595, created twelve new constellations, giving them names of the animals they came across during their journey. This way, the following constellations appeared:

  • Apus (the Bird of Paradise)
  • Chamaeleon
  • Dorado (the Dolphinfish or Swordfish)
  • Grus (the Crane)
  • Tucana (the Toucan)
  • Volans (the Flying Fish)
  • Musca (the Fly).

In 1687, Johannes Heveliusan, a Polish astronomer, published a 56-sheet atlas of constellations that contained ten new constellations, seven of which are still in use:

  • Canes Venatici (the Hunting Dogs)
  • Lacerta (the Lizard)
  • Leo Minor (the Smaller Lion)
  • Lynx
  • Scutum (the Shield)
  • Sextans (the Sextant)
  • Vulpecula (the Little Fox).

Heveliusan’s Cerberus, Mons Maenalus, and Triangulum Minus are now considered obsolete.

Then, between 1751 and 1753, Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille, a French astronomer, explored the stars at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, where he catalogued the positions of 9,766 southern stars and added 14 constellations:

  • Antlia Pneumatica (the Air Pump)
  • Caela Sculptoris (Sculptor’s Chisels)
  • Circinus (Compasses)
  • Horologium (Pendulum Clock)
  • Norma (Carpenter’s Square)
  • Fornax Chemica (Chemical Furnace)
  • Equuleus Pictoris (Painter’s Easel)
  • Octans Hadleianus (Hadley’s Octant)
  • Pyxis Nautica (Mariner’s Compass)
  • Reticulum Rhomboidalis (Rhomboidal Net)
  • Apparatus Sculptoris (Sculptor’s Workshop)
  • Telescopium (Telescope)
  • Microscopium (Microscope)
  • Mons Mensae (Table Mountain)

Finally, in 1930 the International Astronomical Union published an official list of 88 constellations that divide the celestial sphere into 88 fragments.

Simple Constellations

So now when you’re familiar with types of constellation, know what is behind constellation names, and have learned some important facts about star patterns, it’s high time to learn how to figure them out in the night sky.

We believe you’ll become a pro in locating constellations one day, but it’s good to start small, right?

So before we go any further and learn the constellations, let’s take your first learning step. Try to find the Milky Way galaxy in the night sky. From Earth, the Milky Way can be seen as a milky band of light in the sky when you see it in a really dark area. Done? Way to be!

Here are some simple but very interesting constellations to start with. Let’s go.

Ursa Major

Ursa Major, or the Great Bear, is undoubtedly the most famous constellation of the Northern Hemisphere. It is visible throughout the year, and consists of the seven bright stars that make up an asterism known as the Big Dipper, and eighty dimmer stars. The Big Dipper resembles a ladle and is very easy to find in the night sky. Not to mention, the Great Bear has been known to people since ancient times. Today, you can see this popular constellation on the flag of Alaska. It also appears in Vincent van Gogh’s famous painting Starry Night Over the Rhône.

Ursa Minor

Ursa Minor, or Little Bear, is famous for its brightest star Polaris, also known as the Pole Star or the North Star. The North Star stands almost motionless in the night sky, and that’s why it was widely used for navigating the way. To spot the Pole Star, find the brightest stars that make the front of the Big Dipper’s bowl (known as the Pointer stars). Next, draw an imaginary line to connect them and follow this line to the north, the next bright star will be Polaris. Here you are: Polaris at the tip of the Little Bear’s tail.

Leo

Another prominent star pattern that is not difficult to locate is Leo the Lion. The Pointer stars of the Big Dipper show direction to the head of the animal, which is made up of bright stars that form a backward question mark. The ‘dot’ of the question mark is Regulus, the brightest star of Leo. In fact, Regulus is a double star system that can be viewed even with binoculars. So grab your binoculars and go hunt the lion!

Orion

Orion the Hunter is one of the brightest constellations in the night sky, located on the celestial equator. Orion is in the southern sky if you are in the Northern Hemisphere, and vice versa. You’ll easily recognise Orion the Hunter by his belt, made up of three bright stars: Alnilam, Mintaka and Alnitak. Betelgeuse, the second brightest star in Orion, stands for the right shoulder of the hunter. Now look beneath the belt. Here ‘hangs’ another row of three stars, Orion's ‘sword’. However, keep in mind that the middle star in the sword isn't a star at all. It's the Orion Nebula, one of the most spectacular objects the night sky has to offer.

Taurus

Taurus the Bull is one of the constellations of the zodiac, which is located in the Northern hemisphere. How to spot Taurus? A quick tip: remember that zodiacal constellations mark the sun’s yearly path across our sky, which is helpful in locating them.

Taurus is located above Orion and is typically identified by finding a huge red star, Aldebaran, located next to the fork of the bull's horns. You can also admire a spectacular star cluster, the Pleiades, above the Bull.

See Sky Maps and Images of the Constellations

Lastly, it’s a good idea to have a look at a sky map and a picture of a constellation before you try to spot it in the night sky. Here are some options to consider:

  • books on astronomy;
  • printed sky maps;
  • specialized websites.