Constellations and Asterisms
Andromeda the Chained Princess
Andromeda is in the northern sky eternally chained to her rock. She is one of five constellations described by Ptolemy in the second century that are part of an epic ancient myth. The constellation also contains a quadruple star, a blue snowball, exoplanets and a famous spiral galaxy.
Aries the Golden Ram
Aries was the winged ram from which the Golden Fleece came. Two thousand years ago his constellation marked the spring equinox when the Sun crossed the celestial equator near Beta and Gamma Arietis. The equinox is now in Pisces, but what strange object was discovered in 2007 in Aries?
Auriga the Charioteer
The constellation Auriga represents a charioteer, but he has no chariot. However he does have a she-goat and two kids, as well as a rare ring galaxy and a runaway star. Capella is one of the sky's brightest stars, but it also has some surprises.
Boötes - the Herdsman
This ancient constellation contains black holes as massive as a billion Suns, extrasolar planets and has acquired a meteor shower from an extinct neighbor. Its brightest star, a red giant 25 times the diameter of the Sun, is a sign that spring is here.
Camelopardalis the Giraffe
What do you know about the celestial giraffe Camelopardalis? Probably not much. It has no bright stars. Since it was invented long after the ancient Greeks, it has no folklore. But it has a runaway star, a supernova discovered by a child, and a galaxy from when the Universe was just a toddler.
Cancer the Crab
Cancer the crab scuttles across the late winter sky, well away from its nemesis Hercules. Cancer is a zodiac constellation, the Tropic of Cancer is named for it, and it has existed for over three thousand years. Yet it seems to be a dim and unremarkable constellation. Why all the attention?
Canis Major - the Greater Dog
In a sky full of gods, heroes and wronged women, there are also four dogs. We have Canis Minor and the two dogs of Canes Venatici, but Canis Major is definitely top dog. It's a prominent constellation that has represented a dog from early Greek times.
Canis Minor - the Lesser Dog
Canis Minor is one of Orion's hunting dogs. It trots along behind its master unperturbed by the unicorn (Monoceros), and leaving the hare (Lepus) to the greater dog (Canis Major) to chase. It's a small constellation with not much more to offer than one bright star, but it has a long history.
Cassiopeia the Queen
High in the sky, circling the north celestial pole are the distinctive stars of Cassiopeia, the boastful queen who nearly destroyed her kingdom. The Milky Way runs through the constellation and it's full of star clusters, galaxies and evidence of the life cycles of stars.
Cats in the Sky
There are three constellations named for dogs, but what about cats in the sky? There is astrocat Felicette who went into space and returned safely to Earth, but also constellations of big cats and a pawprint 50 light years across.
Centaurus the Centaur
Half-man, half-horse, Centaurus strides across the southern sky. Its myths and legends go back thousands of years and it's full of marvelous sights. Planets, black holes, an enormous diamond and colliding galaxies are just some of them.
Cepheus the King
An ancient Greek tale of pride and passion is played out across the sky, and involves five constellations, including Cepheus the king. In the constellation Cepheus there are stars being born and stars at the end of their lives, some of which will die in a blaze of glory.
Cetus the Sea Monster
Whale or monster? Benign plankton-eating creature? No, a terrifying colossus, a hybrid with gaping jaws and the powerful scaly coils of a sea serpent. This is the constellation Cetus. The monster fell to the hero Perseus, but the stars and deep sky objects are impressive.
Chamaeleon - the Southern Stellar Lizard
Chamaeleons lived in lands exotic to 16th-century Europeans. Yet although color-changing lizards are fascinating, Chamaeleon the constellation is a small, dim southern sky constellation with no associated mythology. Why does it even exist? Is there anything of interest there?
Coma Berenices – Berenice's Hair
A dazzling queen of ancient Egypt was the inspiration for the constellation Coma Berenices. It's small and dim, but contains the Galactic North Pole and multitudes of galaxies.
Constellation or Asterism
Constellations and asterisms are both patterns of stars. So what is a constellation? And If Saturn is in the constellation Virgo, has it left the Solar System? Why is the Big Dipper an asterism and not a constellation?
Constellations – Facts for Kids
ome of our constellations go back thousands of years. Others were invented when Europeans began to explore the distant seas of the southern hemisphere. But what´s the difference between a constellation, an asterism and a star cluster? And what does the constellation Pyxis represent?
Cosmic 4th of July
What links the USA´s Independence Day holiday, the Crab Nebula and NASA´s Deep Impact spacecraft? What links the American War of Independence with the planet Uranus? And what is the Fireworks Galaxy? Read on to find out.
Horses galloping and flying; creatures half human, half horse; dark horses invisible but for their silhouettes against the stars behind them. Find out about the cosmic equines that are features of our skies.
Cosmic Father´s Day
What sort of tie would you give a cosmic father? What would you feed him? Where might he find challenging mountaineering, make an astounding golf shot or get up an interstellar soccer game? How can you send a special man a genuinely galactic greeting? Here´s how.
Creepy Crawlies in Space
What was the first Earth creature to go into space? Not a dog, but a fruit fly. Insects and arachnids have been mini-astronauts for over sixty years. They have also inspired the naming of heavenly objects.
Crux - the Southern Cross
Crux is the smallest of the 88 constellations, but it punches above its weight. As Polaris does in the northern hemisphere, in the southern hemisphere the Southern Cross serves as a navigation aid. It's part of the flags of five nations, and its stars also feature widely in traditional lore.
Cygnus the Swan
Seduction and supergiants, a beautiful blue and amber double star, vast explosions, a giant cloud that looks like North America. Where does myth end and astronomy begin? Here is a tour of some of the highlights of the constellation Cygnus the swan.
Delphinus the Dolphin
Delphinus (the Dolphin) sounds like one of the southern sea constellations invented by early European navigators. However it's an ancient northern constellation first catalogued by Ptolemy in the 2nd century. Small and made up of faint stars, its diamond is still easily visible in a clear dark sky.
Dorado the Mahi Mahi
Since the heavenly flying fish (Volans) is intact, its neighboring constellation Dorado must still be hungry. Dorado is a dolphinfish, mahi mahi being the most common type. Mahi mahi pursue flying fish through tropical seas, and you might imagine Dorado chasing Volans through the southern skies.
Draco – the Dragon
An enormous dragon circles the northern celestial pole. It's Draco, the constellation that contains a star that was the pole star at the time of the pharaohs, numerous impressive deep sky objects, and dozens of exoplanets.
Galactic Winter Games
Welcome to the Galactic Winter Games, a starry tribute to Earth´s Winter Olympic Games. It´s a tour of some really cool cosmic sights – as well as some hot ones, such as one of the biggest explosions in the Universe.
Heavenly Aviaries - Bird Constellations
The night sky is full of starry birds. Here is a selection, ranging from the majestic swan to the exotic birds of the southern skies: the peacock, bird of paradise and toucan. There is also an emu whose image appears not in the stars, but in the dark nebulae.
Hydra the Water Snake – Deep Sky Objects
It's not surprising to find plenty of deep-sky objects in such a big constellation as Hydra. Its varied objects include the Ghost of Jupiter, beautiful globules that are over twice the age of the Sun, and a dramatic grand design spiral galaxy known for its titanic explosions.
Hydra the Water Snake – Myths and Stars
What links the biggest constellation in the sky with the flag of Brazil? Why is the star V Hydrae bright red? How did the hero Hercules vanquish a nine-headed monster? Read all about it here.
Lacaille's Skies - Sciences
There's a curious set of constellations in the southern skies. They don't represent exotic animals, heroic deeds or the foibles of ancient deities. They're composed of dim and nameless stars. Find out why Abbe Lacaille invented them, and take a quick tour.
Lacaille's skies – Arts
Much of the southern sky wasn't visible to the ancient Mediterranean civilizations. Instead of representing the ancient myths, the constellations were invented long afterwards by European explorers and astronomers. Some of Abbe Lacaille's inventions are tributes to the arts.
Lacerta - the Northern Stellar Lizard
Although the night sky has two lizards, the classical world wasn't enthralled by small reptiles. Both Lacerta and Chamaeleon constellations date from about the 17th century, which is considered modern. Lacerta is home to a fiery dwarf, a puffy planet and one of the most energetic known galaxies.
Leo the Lion
Leo is a Zodiac constellation and its stars have represented a lion for over four thousand years. Leo contains one of the brightest stars in the sky and one of the dimmest, as well as a selection of spiral galaxies loved by amateur astronomers. And why isn't Regulus the star of summer anymore?
Libra the Scales
Lying between Virgo and Scorpius in the zodiac, Libra is an ancient constellation. The stars now represent a weighing scale, as they did four thousand years ago in Babylon. But how did its brightest stars come to have names related to a scorpion's claws?
Lyra the Heavenly Harp
Music of the spheres? Here’s a harp to play it on: Lyra, the harp of Orpheus, that almost brought his beloved back from death. The constellation has one of the sky’s brightest stars, a star that is really four stars, and a colorful donut.
Monoceros the Unicorn
Did you know that there is a unicorn constellation? Certainly Monoceros isn't a classical constellation, and it's almost too faint to see. But it has a lot of interesting stars and other objects in it.
What happens to constellations when you don't want them anymore? Nothing, physically. They aren't real groups of stars like star clusters are. They're the products of human imagination, and they come and go. Here are half a dozen of my favorite obsolete constellations.
Octans – the Octant
Octans was one of the southern constellations created by 18th-century French astronomer Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille. He used them to fill the gaps in the southern sky map, naming them for tools of the arts and sciences of his day. An octant was a navigation device that preceded the sextant.
Ophiuchus – the Tour
Ophiuchus the Snake Bearer represents the healer Asclepius who was a god of healing in classical times. He was associated with snakes – symbols of wisdom and regeneration – and in the sky he's entwined with Serpens.
Orion the Hunter
The stars of Orion have been part of humanity's mythscape for thousands of years. Seven bright stars outline the hunter's body. One of them is a supergiant nearing the end of its life. Yet just visible to the unaided eye is a vast stellar nursery where the next generation of stars is forming.
Pegasus the Winged Horse
A flying horse on feathered wings - it's the constellation Pegasus. You can spot it by its most noticeable feature, the Great Square of Pegasus, though one star of the square belongs to poor Princess Andromeda. There's also a star in Pegasus very like our Sun with a planet circling it.
Perseus the Hero
Perseus was a first-class hero: demi-god, monster-slayer, maiden-rescuer, founder of Mycenae. When he died the gods put him in the sky. His constellation contains beautiful nebulae, a demon and a singing black hole.
Sagittarius the Archer
In northern hemisphere summer, the ancient zodiac constellation Sagittarius stands low on the southern horizon. It's a special constellation, for when you see Sagittarius, you're looking into the heart of the Milky Way.
Scutum the Shield
Vienna, September 1683. For two months the city had been besieged by an army of the Ottoman Empire, and couldn't hold out much longer. But what does this have to do with astronomy? The link is the constellation Scutum (the Shield).
Serpens and Ophiuchus - Ancient Tales
What is the link between two ancient constellations and modern medicine? According to one myth, how did Ophiuchus end up in the sky? Why would a healer be associated with a snake?
Serpens – a Tour of the Celestial Snake
Snakes were revered in ancient Greece. They represented wisdom, healing and rebirth. The constellation Serpens was included in a 2nd century star catalog, but it's much older than that. Seen through telescopes, it's rich in deep sky objects.
Sextans – the Sextant
Sextans is a southern constellation invented by Johannes Hevelius in the 17th century to represent his astronomical sextant. Its stars are dim, but it's rich in deep sky objects.
Sky of Grand Central Terminal – It´s Backwards
A splendid starry sky crowns the concourse of Manhattan´s Grand Central Terminal. It´s a 1940s reworking of the original that Paul César Helleu designed after consultation with a prominent astronomer. Yet a month after the station opened, a starwise commuter claimed that the sky was backwards.
Star Tales [offsite link]
An updated version of Ian Ridpath´s classic Star Tales about the myths and legends of the night sky is now available online.
The Summer Triangle is a stellar treat for northern mid-latitudes summer sky watchers. It graces the sky all night long in summer, and its three bright stars are visible even in urban areas. Under dark skies you can also see the Milky Way within the asterism.
Taurus the Bull
In Greek myth Taurus is Zeus's guise for the seduction of Europa. Yet the bull's red eye still glares at Orion in an enmity created long before the rise of ancient Greece. Today's Taurus is a constellation memorable for its two beautiful star clusters and one of the sky's most amazing objects.
Telescopium and Microscopium
Nicholas-Louis de Lacaille invented over a dozen constellations to fill gaps in the southern sky map. Instead of looking to classical mythology, he celebrated the instruments of the Enlightenment. Two small faint constellations represent extremes of visual aids – the telescope and the microscope.
The Starry Crowns – Corona Australis
A wreath, a crown, a wheel of torment, a boomerang. The constellation Corona Australis has represented them all in different traditions. Its stars are dim, but its stories are vivid.
The Starry Crowns – Corona Borealis
There are two crowns in the sky, the northern and southern ones. Classically, Corona Borealis represents the crown of Ariadne, abandoned heroine of the tale of the Minotaur and the labyrinth. More prosaically, in Australian aboriginal astronomy, it's Womera – the Boomerang, which it resembles.
Triangulum – the Northern Triangle
The sky is full of potential triangles. You just need three stars that aren't in a line. We have large triangular asterisms – the Summer, Spring, and Winter Triangles. And did you know we have two triangle constellations? The northern one is Triangulum, and it has a surprisingly long history.
Virgo the Maiden
Virgo is one of the constellations of the zodiac, and its stars have been linked to agricultural goddesses for thousands of years. This area of sky contains thousands of galaxies, dozens of known extrasolar planets, and is where the first quasar was discovered.
Volans Flies the Southern Skies
Volans (the Flying Fish) flees from its predator Dorado (the Mahi Mahi) across the southern sky. They're two of the southern hemisphere constellations that Flemish astronomer Petrus Plancius (1552-1622) created to fill in parts of the sky not visible to northern astronomers.
Vulpecula - the Little Fox
Vulpecula isn't a well known constellation, and its stars are dim. Yet it's interesting. It contains both the first planetary nebula and the first pulsar ever discovered, a handful of exoplanets, and part of the biggest structure in the known Universe.
What Are Constellations
Stories of gods and mortals, love and betrayal, monsters and heroes. They all adorn the night sky in the form of constellations. These star groups have also served as calendars, navigation aids and internationally defined areas of the celestial sphere.
Who Let the Dogs Out?
Someone must have left the door open, because the skies are full of dogs. You can see the dogs of Orion and the hunting dogs of the shepherd Bootes in pursuit of the Great Bear. There is also the Running Dog Nebula and the memory of poor Laika, the first cosmonaut, who perished in space.
From March to May you can see the Spring Triangle in northern skies. In summer the Summer Triangle is most prominent, but may be seen all year round in most of the northern hemisphere. There is also a Winter Triangle. But grandest of all is the Winter Hexagon.
Zodiac Constellations - Quiz
How well do you know the constellations of the zodiac? They are the oldest of the constellations. Here's a little quiz for you to test your knowledge. It's complete with answers and some additional facts about the zodiac constellations.
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