What is a constellation?

You can name a star within a constellation. But do you even know what a constellation is?

Gaze into the sky at night, preferably away from the city lights, and you will see a myriad of stars. Some are bright, some tiny pinpricks, many are clustered together and if you have a great imagination, they seem to form shapes.

If you are at a loss, don't worry, over the past 6000 years, poets, romantics and astronomers have named these shapes for us, creating constellations.

Constellations are imaginery

Think of a puzzle where you join the dots – you may draw a dog, a lion or a giant. Constellations work the same way. By clumping stars together and joining the dots, you get imaginary pictures in the sky. Many constellations were named after figures in ancient mythology, some after Zodiac signs and others after animals.

How many constellations are there?

In order to create some sort of structure in the skies, in the early 1920's the International Astronomical Union decided upon 88 constellations that would be officially recognised by all astronomers. The breakdown consists of 17 human or mythological characters, 29 inanimate objects and 42 animals. An official name was given as well a 3 letter abbreviation that corresponds to the actual name. So for example, we have AQR for Aquarius the Zodiac sign or CHA for Chameleon the animal.

How do you figure this out?

With a bit of practice, some constellations are fairly easy to recognise. Orion has a well defined belt of three bright stars and from there you can imagine the rest of the giant. If you need more help there are fabulous skymaps and charts that show detailed drawings and also name the stars in the constellation.

Once you get to know them, remember that these are patterns viewed from Earth. If and when you go to Mars, the entire picture changes and you will have to start learning all over again!

List of popular constellations:

















Ursa Major

Ursa Minor