- This article is about constellations of stars. See also: satellite constellation, Constellation Records, USS Constellation, Lockheed Constellation civil airplane, radio QAM constellation.
A constellation is a group of stars visibly related to each other in a particular configuration. In three-dimensional space, most of the stars we see have little relation to one another, but can appear to be grouped on the celestial sphere of the night sky. Humans excel at finding patterns and throughout history have grouped stars that appear close to one another into constellations. An "unofficial" constellation, that is, one that may be widely known but is not recognized by astronomers or the International Astronomical Union, is also called an asterism. The stars in a constellation or asterism rarely have any astrophysical relationship to each other; they just happen to appear close together in the sky as viewed from Earth and typically lie many light years apart in space.
The grouping of stars into constellations is essentially arbitrary, and different cultures have had different constellations, although a few of the more obvious ones tend to recur frequently, e.g., Orion and Scorpius.
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) divides the sky into 88 official constellations with precise boundaries, so that every direction belongs to exactly one constellation. In the northern celestial hemisphere, these are mostly based upon the constellations of the ancient Greek tradition, passed down through the Middle Ages. Twelve of the constellations in the southern celestial hemisphere were not observable by the Greeks, and were created by Dutch navigators Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser and Frederick de Houtman in the sixteenth century and first cataloged by Johann Bayer.
The first 12 are the zodiac. In addition to these 12, Ptolemy listed another 36 constellations (which now count as 38, due to the break-up of Argo Navis). In more recent times this list has been added to, first to fill gaps between Ptolemy's patterns (the Greeks considered the sky as including both constellations and dim spaces between) and second to fill up the southern sky as European explorers journeyed where they could see it.
Other proposed constellations didn't make the cut, most notably Quadrans Muralis (now part of Bo÷tes) for which the Quadrantid meteors are named. Also the constellation Argo Navis was so big that it was broken up into several different constellations.
See also: list of constellations
Many stars are named using the genitive of the constellation in which they are found. These names include Bayer designations such as Alpha Centauri, Flamsteed designations such as 61 Cygni, and variable star designations such as RR Lyrae. For more information about star names, see Star designations.
- The Constellations
- Celestia free 3D realtime space-simulation (OpenGL)
- Data file of official IAU boundaries (Note that the boundaries are defined for equinox 1875.)
- Constellations Articles