What is a Constellation?
A constellation is a group of stars that form a recognizable pattern. Each of these patterns is named after a mythological figure or after the form it appears to take.
Since the start of human civilization, people have looked up to the stars for information such as when to plant the crop, when to harvest, or which direction to take when traveling through the desert or navigating the seas.
The ancient astronomers thought of these constellations by grouping together the brightest stars in the sky into easily decipherable shapes and patterns. There are an estimated 88 constellations. Interestingly, the number of constellations has remained the same – 88 – for hundreds of years. Nothing has changed from the time the likes of Galileo and Copernicus used to observe the stars.
How Did The Constellations Get Their Names?
The ancient astronomers named the brightest stars in the sky after characters from various mythologies. They gazed at the sky for hours every night, trying to find patterns, and wove stories into them. The constellations were a product of these stories.
Modern day astronomers gave these stars new names so that they could identify them easily. Many stars are named after the constellation they fall under. The brightest star within a constellation is referred to as an alpha. The brightest star in the constellation Orion, for example, is also named as Alpha Orionis.
But how were the constellations named? Every ancient culture on the planet, whether they were the Chinese, Indians or the Greeks, had an obsession with the stars and looked for patterns in the way they appeared in the sky.
The Greeks named one such pattern as Ursa Major or the Great Bear because it appeared to them as a bear. The Ursa Major is a much larger pattern and includes smaller patterns, such as the Big Dipper, the most recognizable star pattern with 7 stars.
This was seen differently by different cultures. The English called it as the Plough, the French called it as the Saucepan, the Hindus called it as the Seven Rishis (seven saints), the Mayans called it as the Seven Macaw, after a parrot, everyone had their own names for the various constellations.
However, most of what we know about the modern constellation system comes to us from the Greek civilization. The oldest description of the constellations the way we know it comes from a Greek poem from the 270 BC written by Aratus, known as Phaenomena.
The constellations were thought off before Aratus’ time, but it’s hard to tell when exactly. We don’t know if they were created by one person or by many people over many generations – which is most likely to be the case.
How to Find the Constellations in the Night Sky?
Finding constellations is a dying art. Nobody does that anymore, especially with GPS systems becoming so widely used. But in the past, the first thing every sailor or adventurer did was to learn how to find the constellations. They learned to find the constellations in the night sky not out of academic interest but to navigate their way out of an unfamiliar territory.
Today, with so much pollution in most cities around the world, it is very difficult to find any stars in the sky, forget finding constellations. But in case you happen to get a clear view of the sky, follow the advice given here to find your favorite constellations.
Even if you don’t have a clear view of the sky, you can use online tools or apps such as Google Sky to identify the various patterns in the sky. Google Sky provides you with a customized star map based on your location.
To get a clear view of the sky, go to some place at some distance from the city, and take your telescope with you. You will be able to see the faint and not so visible stars as well, beyond what the naked eye can see.
To begin with, find a point of reference. Most astronomers orient themselves to the North Star or the Polaris. The North Star is aligned to the rotational axis of the Earth.
Let’s find a few constellations for you.
The Ursa Minor or the Little Bear
The Ursa Minor or the Little Dipper is best seen in the Northern hemisphere in June. What makes this constellation unique is that it has the North Star, which represents the North Pole.
This constellation is named as Ursa Minor or Baby Bear because of its shape which consists of four stars forming a box and a three-star long tail featuring the North Star.
Ursa Major or the Big Bear
The Ursa Major is one constellation that most people can recognize easily. It is very visible and features the same shape as the Ursa Minor – 4 stars forming a box, with a three star tail – except that it is much larger in size.
Also, the tail has a downward bent. You can form a connection between the stars Merak and Dubhe, which are found in the upper and lower right corners of the Ursa Major to find the North Star.
Aquarius or the Cupbearer
The Aquarius is one of the largest constellations and recognized across the world. It has a very visible right arm, but apart from that, has no obvious distinguishing features as the stars are often very faint. It is referred to as the “water carrier,” or God’s Cupbearer in Greek mythology.
Gemini or the Twins
Gemini is another widely recognized constellation named after the twins Pollux and Castor, sons of Leda. It features two identical shapes side-by-side, with the two left-most stars Pollux and Castor serving as the heads.
Orion or the Hunter
Orion is another famous constellation which is easy to identify because of its three bright stars and the Alpha Orionis at the top left and Beta Orionis at the bottom right.
Scorpius or the Scorpion
Scorpius is one of the brightest constellations with many bright stars and has a distinctive shape. Antares is the most clearly visible star in Scorpius. It is often confused with Mars, but experienced astronomers never make that mistake.
Corona Borealis Northern
|Latin Name||English Name or Description|
|Andromeda||Princess of Ethiopia|
|Apus||Bird of Paradise|
|Canes Venatici||Hunting dogs|
|Canis Major||Big dog|
|Canis Minor||Little dog|
|Carina||Keel of Argonauts’ ship|
|Cassiopeia||Queen of Ethiopia|
|Cephus||King of Ethiopia|
|Cetus||Sea monster (whale)|
|Coma Berenices||Berenice’s hair|
|Corona Australis||Southern crown|
|Corona Borealis||Northern crown|
|Hercules||Hercules, son of Zeus|
|Leo Minor||Little lion|
|Lyra||Lyre or harp|
|Ophiuchus||Holder of serpent|
|Orion||Orion, the hunter|
|Pegasus||Pegasus, the winged horse|
|Perseus||Perseus, hero who saved Andromeda|
|Piscis Austrinis||Southern fish|
|Puppis||Stern of the Argonauts’ ship|
|Pyxis (=Malus)||Compass on the Argonauts’ ship|
|Triangulum Australe||Southern triangle|
|Ursa Major||Big bear|
|Ursa Minor||Little bear|
|Vela||Sail of the Argonauts’ ship|