The constellation Orion is one of the most recognizable in the night sky.

In modern astronomy, a constellation is an internationally defined area of the celestial sphere. These areas are grouped around asterisms, patterns formed by prominent stars within apparent proximity to one another on Earth's night sky.

There are 88 standard constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) since 1922. The majority of these goes back to the 48 constellations defined by Ptolemy in his Almagest (2nd century). The remaining ones were defined in the 17th and 18th century; the most recent ones are found on the southern sky, defined in Coelum australe stelliferum by Nicolas Louis de Lacaille (1763).

There are also numerous historical constellations not recognized by the IAU, or constellations recognized in regional traditions of astronomy or astrology, such as Chinese, Hindu or Australian Aboriginal.



The Late Latin term constellātiō can be translated as "set with stars". The term was first used in astrology, of asterisms that supposedly exerted influence, attested in Ammianus (4th century). In English the term was used from the 14th century, also in astrology, of conjunctions of planets. The modern astronomical sense of "area of the celestial sphere around a specific asterism" dates to the mid 16th century.

Colloquial usage does not distinguish the senses of "asterism" and "area surrounding an asterism". The modern system of constellations used in astronomy focuses primarily on constellations as grid-like segments of the celestial sphere rather than as patterns, while the term for a star-pattern is asterism.

For example, the asterism known as the Big Dipper corresponds to the seven brightest stars of the larger IAU constellation of Ursa Major.


The current list of 88 constellations recognised by the International Astronomical Union since 1922 is based on the 48 listed by Ptolemy in his Almagest in the 2nd century.[1][2] Ptolemy's catalogue is informed by Eudoxus of Cnidus, a Greek astronomer of the 4th century BC who introduced earlier Babylonian astronomy to the Hellenistic culture. Of the 48 constellations listed by Ptolemy, thirty can be shown to have a much longer history, reaching back into at least the Late Bronze Age. This concerns the zodiacal constellations in particular.

Ancient Near East

The oldest catalogues of stars and constellations are from Old Babylonian astronomy, beginning in the Middle Bronze Age. The numerous Sumerian names in these catalogues suggest that they build on older, but otherwise unattested, Sumerian traditions of the Early Bronze Age. The classical Zodiac is a product of a revision of the Old Babylonian system in later Neo-Babylonian astronomy (6th century BC).

Knowledge of the Neo-Babylonian zodiac is also reflected in the Hebrew Bible. E. W. Bullinger interpreted the creatures appearing in the books of Ezekiel (and thence in Revelation) as the middle signs of the four quarters of the Zodiac,[3][4] with the Lion as Leo, the Bull is Taurus, the Man representing Aquarius and the Eagle standing in for Scorpio.[5] The biblical Book of Job (dating to the 6th to 4th century BC) is also aware of a number of constellations, including עיש `Ayish "bier", כסיל Kĕciyl "fool" and כימה Kiymah "heap" (Job 9:9, 38:31-32), rendered as "Arcturus, Orion and Pleiades" by the KJV, but `Ayish "the bier" actually corresponding to Ursa Major.[6] The term Mazzaroth מַזָּרֹות, a hapax legomenon in Job 38:32, may be the Hebrew word for the zodiacal constellations.

The Greeks adopted the Babylonian system in the 4th century BC. A total of twenty Ptolemaic constellations are directly continued from the Ancient Near East. Another ten have the same stars but different names.[7]


There is only limited information on indigenous Greek constellations. Some evidence is found in Hesiod.[clarification needed] Greek astronomy essentially adopted the older Babylonian system in the Hellenistic era, first introduced to Greece by Eudoxus of Cnidus in the 4th century BC. The original work of Eudoxus is lost, but it survives as a versification by Aratus, dating to the 3rd century BC. The most complete existing works dealing with the mythical origins of the constellations are by the Hellenistic writer termed pseudo-Eratosthenes and an early Roman writer styled pseudo-Hyginus.

The basis of western astronomy as taught during Late Antiquity and until the Early Modern period is the Almagest by Ptolemy, written in the 2nd century. Indian astronomy is also based on Hellenistic tradition, via transmission by the Indo-Greek kingdoms.

Classical Chinese constellations

In classical Chinese astronomy, the northern sky is divided geometrically, into five "enclosures" and twenty-eight mansions along the ecliptic, grouped into Four Symbols of seven asterisms each. The 28 lunar mansions are one of the most important and also the most ancient structures in the Chinese sky, attested from the 5th century BC. Parallels to the earliest Babylonian (Sumerian) star catalogues suggest that the ancient Chinese system did not arise independently from that of the Ancient Near East.[8] Classical Chinese astronomy is recorded in the Han period and appears in the form of three schools, which are attributed to astronomers of the Zhanguo period. The constellations of the three schools were conflated into a single system by Chen Zhuo, an astronomer of the 3rd century (Three Kingdoms period). Chen Zhuo's work has been lost, but information on his system of constellations survives in Tang period records, notably by Qutan Xida. The oldest extant Chinese star chart dates to the Tang period and was preserved as part of the Dunhuang Manuscripts. Native Chinese astronomy flourished during the Song Dynasty, and during the Yuan Dynasty became increasingly influenced by medieval Islamic astronomy.[9]

Early Modern era

The constellations around the South Pole were observable from south of the prime meridian, by either Babylonians, Greeks, Chinese or Arabs.

The modern constellations in this region were defined during the Age of exploration, notably by Dutch navigators Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser and Frederick de Houtman at the end of sixteenth century. They were depicted by Johann Bayer in his star atlas Uranometria of 1603. Several more were created by Nicolas Louis de Lacaille in his star catalogue, published in 1756.

Some modern proposals for new constellations were not successful; an example is Quadrans, eponymous of the Quadrantid meteors, now divided between Boötes and Draco. The classical constellation of Argo Navis was broken up into several different constellations, for the convenience of stellar cartographers.

By the end of the Ming Dynasty, Xu Guangqi introduced 23 asterisms of the southern sky based on the knowledge of western star charts.[10] These asterisms were since incorporated into the traditional Chinese star maps.

IAU constellations

In 1922, Henry Norris Russell aided the IAU in dividing the celestial sphere into 88 official constellations.[11] Where possible, these modern constellations usually share the names of their Graeco-Roman predecessors, such as Orion, Leo or Scorpius. The aim of this system is area-mapping, i.e. the division of the celestial sphere into contiguous fields.[12] Out of the 88 modern constellations, 36 lie predominantly in the northern sky, and the other 52 predominantly in the southern.

In 1930, the boundaries between the 88 constellations were devised by Eugène Delporte along vertical and horizontal lines of right ascension and declination.[13] However, the data he used originated back to epoch B1875.0, which was when Benjamin A. Gould first made the proposal to designate boundaries for the celestial sphere, a suggestion upon which Delporte would base his work. The consequence of this early date is that due to the precession of the equinoxes, the borders on a modern star map, such as epoch J2000, are already somewhat skewed and no longer perfectly vertical or horizontal.[14] This effect will increase over the years and centuries to come.


Much of the dark space between stars, as seen in the sky of the image above, are due to the human eye's low light sensitivity. Other images (like the "hubble deep field" - not pictured) detect far more stars.

The stars of the main asterism within a constellation are usually given Greek letters in their order of brightness, the so-called Bayer designation introduced by Johann Bayer in 1603. A total of 1,564 stars are so identified, out of approximately 10,000 stars visible to the naked eye.[15]

The brightest stars, usually the stars that make up the constellation's eponymous asterism, also retain proper names, often from Arabic. For example, the "Little Dipper" asterism of the constellation Ursa Minor has ten stars with Bayer designation, α UMi to π UMi. Of these ten stars, seven have a proper name, viz. Polaris (α UMi), Kochab (β UMi), Pherkad (γ UMi), Yildun (δ UMi), Urodelus (ε UMi), Ahfa al Farkadain (ζ UMi) and Anwar al Farkadain (η UMi).

The stars within an asterism rarely have any substantial astrophysical relationship to each other, and their apparent proximity when viewed from Earth disguises the fact that they are far apart, some being much farther from Earth than others. However, there are some exceptions: many of the stars in the constellation of Ursa Major (including most of the Big Dipper) are genuinely close to one another, travel through the galaxy with similar velocities, and are likely to have formed together as part of a cluster that is slowly dispersing. These stars form the Ursa Major moving group.

Dark cloud constellations

The "Emu in the sky," a constellation defined by dark clouds rather than the stars. An IAU interpretation would recognise Crux (the Southern Cross) above the emu's head and Scorpius on the left. The head of the emu is the Coalsack.

Dark patches in the Milky Way are more visible and striking in the southern hemisphere than in the northern. They vividly stand out when conditions are otherwise so dark that the Milky Way's central region casts shadows on the ground. Some cultures have discerned shapes in these patches and have given names to these "dark cloud constellations." Members of the Inca civilization identified various dark areas or dark nebulae in the Milky Way as animals, and associated their appearance with the seasonal rains.[16] Australian Aboriginal astronomy also describes dark cloud constellations, the most famous being the "emu in the sky" whose head is formed by the Coalsack.

See also


  1. ^ International Astronomical Union. "The Constellations". 
  2. ^ Ian Ridpath. "Constellation names, abbreviations and sizes". 
  3. ^ E.W. Bullinger, The Witness of the Stars
  4. ^ D. James Kennedy, The Real Meaning of the Zodiac.
  5. ^ Richard Hinckley Allen, Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning, Vol. 1 (New York: Dover Publications, 1899, p. 213-215.) argued for Scorpio having previously been called Eagle.
  6. ^ Gesenius, Hebrew Lexicon
  7. ^ The Origin of the Greek Constellations, by Bradley E. Schaefer. Scientific American, November 2006.
  8. ^ Xiaochun Sun, Jacob Kistemaker, The Chinese sky during the Han, vol. 38 of Sinica Leidensia, BRILL, 1997, ISBN 9789004107373, p. 18, note 9.
  9. ^ Xiaochun Sun, Jacob Kistemaker, The Chinese sky during the Han, vol. 38 of Sinica Leidensia, BRILL, 1997, ISBN 9789004107373, chapter 2, 15-36.
  10. ^ Sun, Xiaochun (1997). Helaine Selin. ed. Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Kluwer Academic Publishers. pp. 910. ISBN 0-7923-4066-3 (HB). 
  11. ^ "The original names and abbreviations for constellations from 1922.". Retrieved 2010-01-31. 
  12. ^ "The IAU on constellations". Retrieved 2010-01-31. 
  13. ^ "Constellation boundaries.". Retrieved 2011-05-24. 
  14. ^ A.C. Davenhall & S.K. Leggett, "A Catalogue of Constellation Boundary Data", (Centre de Donneés astronomiques de Strasbourg, February 1990).
  15. ^ The Bright Star Catalogue lists 9,110 objects of the night sky which are visible to the naked eye (apparent magnitude of 6.5 or brighter). 9,096 of these are stars, all of them well within our galaxy.
  16. ^ The Incan View of the Night Sky

Further reading

Mythology, lore, history, and archaeoastronomy

Atlases and celestial maps

General & Nonspecialized – Entire Celestial Heavens:

  • Becvar, Antonin. Atlas Coeli. Published as Atlas of the Heavens, Sky Publishing Corporation, Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A.; with coordinate grid transparency overlay.
  • Norton, Arthur Philip. (1910) Norton's Star Atlas, 20th Edition 2003 as Norton's Star Atlas and Reference Handbook, edited by Ridpath, Ian, Pi Press, ISBN 978-0-13-145164-3, hardcover.
  • National Geographic Society. (1957, 1970, 2001, 2007) The Heavens (1970), Cartographic Division of the National Geographic Society (NGS), Washington, D.C., U.S.A., two sided large map chart depicting the constellations of the heavens; as special supplement to the August 1970 issue of National Geographic. Forerunner map as A Map of The Heavens, as special supplement to the December 1957 issue. Current version 2001 (Tirion), with 2007 reprint.
  • Sinnott, Roger W. and Perryman, Michael A.C. (1997) Millennium Star Atlas, Epoch 2000.0, Sky Publishing Corporation, Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A., and European Space Agency (ESA), ESTEC, Noordwijk, The Netherlands. Subtitle: "An All-Sky Atlas Comprising One Million Stars to Visual Magnitude Eleven from the Hipparcos and Tycho Catalogues and Ten Thousand Nonstellar Objects". 3 volumes, hardcover, in hardcover slipcase, set ISBN 0-933346-84-0. Vol. 1, 0–8 Hours (Right Ascension), ISBN 0-933346-81-6 hardcover; Vol. 2, 8–16 Hours, ISBN 0-933346-82-4 hardcover; Vol. 3, 16–24 Hours, ISBN 0-933346-83-2 hardcover. Softcover version available. Supplemental separate purchasable coordinate grid transparent overlays.
  • Tirion, Wil; et al. (1987) Uranometria 2000.0, Willmann-Bell, Inc., Richmond, Virginia, U.S.A., 3 volumes, hardcover. Vol. 1 (1987): "The Northern Hemisphere to −6o", by Wil Tirion, Barry Rappaport, and George Lovi, ISBN 0-943396-14-X hardcover, printed boards (blue). Vol. 2 (1988): "The Southern Hemisphere to +6o", by Wil Tirion, Barry Rappaport and George Lovi, ISBN 0-943396-15-8 hardcover, printed boards (red). Vol. 3 (1993) as a separate added work: The Deep Sky Field Guide to Uranometria 2000.0, by Murray Cragin, James Lucyk, and Barry Rappaport, ISBN 0-943396-38-7 hardcover, printed boards (gray). 2nd Edition 2001 (black or dark background) as collective set of 3 volumes – Vol. 1: Uranometria 2000.0 Deep Sky Atlas, by Wil Tirion, Barry Rappaport, and Will Remaklus, ISBN 978-0-943396-71-2 hardcover, printed boards (blue edging); Vol. 2: Uranometria 2000.0 Deep Sky Atlas, by Wil Tirion, Barry Rappaport, and Will Remaklus, ISBN 978-0-943396-72-9 hardcover, printed boards (green edging); Vol. 3: Uranometria 2000.0 Deep Sky Field Guide by Murray Cragin and Emil Bonanno, ISBN 978-0-943396-73-6, hardcover, printed boards (teal green).
  • Tirion, Wil and Sinnott, Roger W. (1998) Sky Atlas 2000.0, various editions. 2nd Deluxe Edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England (U.K.).

Northern Celestial Hemisphere & North Circumpolar Region:

  • Becvar, Antonin. (1962) Atlas Borealis 1950.0, Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences (Ceskoslovenske Akademie Ved), Praha, Czechoslovakia, 1st Edition, elephant folio hardcover, with small transparency overlay coordinate grid square and separate paper magnitude legend ruler. 2nd Edition 1972 and 1978 reprint, Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences (Ceskoslovenske Akademie Ved), Prague, Czechoslovakia, and Sky Publishing Corporation, Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A., ISBN 0-933346-01-8 oversize folio softcover spiral bound, with transparency overlay coordinate grid ruler.

Equatorial, Ecliptic, & Zodiacal Celestial Sky:

  • Becvar, Antonin. (1958) Atlas Eclipticalis 1950.0, Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences (Ceskoslovenske Akademie Ved), Praha, Czechoslovakia, 1st Edition, elephant folio hardcover, with small transparency overlay coordinate grid square and separate paper magnitude legend ruler. 2nd Edition 1974, Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences (Ceskoslovenske Akademie Ved), Prague, Czechoslovakia, and Sky Publishing Corporation, Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A., oversize folio softcover spiral bound, with transparency overlay coordinate grid ruler.

Southern Celestial Hemisphere & South Circumpolar Region:

  • Becvar, Antonin. Atlas Australis 1950.0, Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences (Ceskoslovenske Akademie Ved), Praha, Czechoslovakia, 1st Edition, elephant folio hardcover, with small transparency overlay coordinate grid square and separate paper magnitude legend ruler. 2nd Edition, Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences (Ceskoslovenske Akademie Ved), Prague, Czechoslovakia, and Sky Publishing Corporation, Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A., oversize folio softcover spiral bound, with transparency overlay coordinate grid ruler.


  • Becvar, Antonin. (1959) Atlas Coeli II Katalog 1950.0, Praha, 1960 Prague. Published 1964 as Atlas of the Heavens - II Catalogue 1950.0, Sky Publishing Corporation, Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
  • Hirshfeld, Alan and Sinnott, Roger W. (1982) Sky Catalogue 2000.0, Cambridge University Press and Sky Publishing Corporation, 1st Edition, 2 volumes. LCCN 81017975 both vols., and LCCN 83240310 vol. 1. "Volume 1: Stars to Magnitude 8.0", ISBN 0-521-24710-1 (Cambridge) and 0-933346-35-2 (Sky) hardcover, ISBN 0-933346-34-4 (Sky) softcover. Vol. 2 (1985) - "Volume 2: Double Stars, Variable Stars, and Nonstellar Objects", ISBN 0-521-25818-9 (Cambridge) hardcover, ISBN 0-521-27721-3 (Cambridge) softcover. 2nd Edition (1991) with additional third author Frangois Ochsenbein, 2 volumes, LCCN 91026764. Vol. 1: ISBN 0-521-41743-0 (Cambridge) hardcover (black binding); ISBN 0-521-42736-3 (Cambridge) softcover (red lettering with Hans Vehrenberg astrophoto). Vol. 2 (1999): ISBN 0-521-27721-3 (Cambridge) softcover and 0-933346-38-7 (Sky) softcover - reprint of 1985 edition (blue lettering with Hans Vehrenberg astrophoto).
  • Yale University Observatory. (1908, et al.) Catalogue of Bright Stars, New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A. Referred to commonly as "Bright Star Catalogue". Various editions with various authors historically, the longest term revising author as (Ellen) Dorrit Hoffleit. 1st Edition 1908. 2nd Edition 1940 by Frank Schlesinger and Louise F. Jenkins. 3rd Edition (1964), 4th Edition, 5th Edition (1991), and 6th Edition (pending posthumous) by Hoffleit.

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

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