What is a Constellation?

A constellation is a group of stars making an imaginary night sky shape. They are usually named after mythological characters, people, animals and objects. In different parts of the world, people have made up different shapes out of the same groups of bright stars. It is like a game of connecting the dots. In the past creating imaginary images out of stars became useful for navigating at night and for keeping track of the seasons. Because all the stars are at different distances, the constellations would look totally different to the inhabitants of another planet orbiting another star.

The International Astronomical Union, in 1922, decided it was necessary to standardise and ratify the modern constellations to facilitate new cataloguing and end centuries of confusion and controversy. They established official boundaries for each constellation, carving the sky into sections. There is no part of the Earth’s sky which does not belong to a constellation.

milky way galaxy during nighttime
Photo by Hristo Fidanov on

There are officially 88 constellations, 48 of which are ancient Greek in origin, the majority of those comprised largely of rehashed ancient Babylonian, Egyptian, and Assyrian stories. The writings of Ptolemy usually provided the official record of these shapes and tales, along with names for the brightest stars, almost all of which are Arabic.

The remaining constellations are “modern,” having been written down between the 16th and 18th centuries by various astronomers, especially those exploring the skies of the Southern hemisphere for the first time. Having been recorded during an age of scientific revolution, these new constellations include a great many research instruments: Microscopium, Telescopium, Antlia the air-pump, Fornax the chemical furnace, Pixis the compass, Horologium the clock, etc.

The northern skies are more “dense” in stories, with roughly 55 of the 88 constellations visible without moving south of the equator.

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