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Constellations Ursa Major (the "Big Dipper") and Ursa Minor (the "Little Dipper") with Polaris, the North Star. Children around the Northern hemisphere are taught to find the North Star (which hangs over the North Pole) by means of these two easy-to-spot constellations. The Big Dipper's outer lip points to the North Star, which is at the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. In the course of one night, only the North Star appears unmoving, while all the other stars appear to revolve part-way around it. The other stars revolve all the way around the North Star in approximately one 24-hour day (one rotation of the earth).

A constellation is an officially recognised formation of stars as viewed in the sky from the earth. Ancient astronomers perceived figures, often men or animals, in the night sky, thus ordering its apparent chaos. Such figures were arbitrarily chosen; thus, numerous ancient constellations were independently imagined by different cultures, including those of China and India. The 88 modern constellations which comprise the entire sky, however, derive from civilisations further west. Their boundaries were defined by the International Astronomical Union in 1925. The majority of them are ancient constellations, and have names often associated with Greek mythology while others, mainly situated south of the celestial equator, were introduced in the age of exploration by European explorers and are named after scientific instruments or newly found animal species.

A Greek letter followed by the Latin genitive (possessive) case of a constellation name is conventionally used to designate the brighter stars in a group. For example, the fifth-brightest star in the constellation Eridanus is given a name consisting of the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet and the name of the constellation: "epsilon Eridani", meaning "fifth (star) of Eridanus". The order of brightness is not strictly adhered to, however; for example, β Orionis (Rigel) is brighter than α Orionis (Betelgeuse).

History of the Western constellations

Most constellations have their origins in the ancient Greek, Egyptian and Babylonian cultures. They are mentioned in the Book of Job, as in this apostrophe:[1]

31 Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades?
Can you loose the cords of Orion?
32 Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons
or lead out the Bear with its cubs?

In the third century BC, Aratos of Soli composed Phainomena, a didactic poem about the mythology of the constellations, which was the basis of the catalog of 48 constellations by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy:

  • the 12 constellations of the Zodiac: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpius, Sagittarius, Capricornus, Aquarius and Pisces
  • 21 northern constellations: Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Draco, Cepheus, Bootes, Corona Septentrionalis, Hercules, Lyra, Cygnus, Cassiopea, Perseus, Andromeda, Triangulum, Auriga, Pegasus, Equuleus, Delphinus, Sagitta, Aquila, Ophiuchus and Serpens
  • 15 southern constellations: Cetus, Eridanus, Lepus, Orion, Canis Major, Canis Minor, Argo, Hydra, Crater, Corvus, Centaurus, Lupus, Ara, Corona Meridionalis and Piscis Australis.

At the end of the 16th century, the Dutch sailors Pieter Dirckszoon Keyser and Frederick de Houtman suggested twelve new constellations: Apis, Apus Indica, Chamaeleon, Dorado, Grus, Hydrus, Indus, Pavo, Phoenix, Triangulum Australe, Tucana and Piscis Volans. In 1603 these were added by Johann Beyer to his important atlas Uranometria, as well as Coma Berenices.

The Gdansk astronomer Johann Hevelius added 10 further constellations in his maps, published in 1690 (Firmamentum Sobiescianum and Prodomus Astronomiæ): Canes Venatici, Lacerta, Leo minor, Lynx, Uraniæ Sextans, Scutum Sobiescianum, Triangulum Minus, Vulpecula & Anser, Cerberus and Mons Mænalus.

In 1751, the French astronomer abbot Nicolas Louis de Lacaille went to the Cape of Good Hope for the purpose of determining the sun's parallax by observations of the parallaxes of Mars and Venus, and incidentally to make observations on the other southern hemisphere stars. In 1763, Lacaille published the results of this successful undertaking, the observations of ten thousands stars, in his Coelum australe stelligerum. This work introduced 14 new constellations that were named after scientific instruments and artist's tools:

  1. L'atelier du sculpteur, Apparatus Sculptoris (Sculptor)
  2. Le fourneau chymique, Fornax Chemica (Fornax)
  3. L'horloge (Horologium)
  4. Le réticule romboïde, Reticulum Rhomboidalis (Reticulum)
  5. Le burin du graveur, Cæla Sculptoris (Caelum)
  6. Le chevalet du peintre, Equuleus Pictoris (Pictor)
  7. La boussole, Pyxis Nautica (Pyxis)
  8. La machine pneumatique, Antlia Pneumatica (Antlia)
  9. L'octans (Octans)
  10. Le compas (Circinus)
  11. L'équerre & la règle, Norma et Regula (Norma)
  12. Le télescope (Telescopium)
  13. Le microscope (Microscopium)
  14. La montagne de la table, Mons Mensae (Mensa)

List of the 88 modern constellations

Latin name Latin genitive International
Number of
English name German name
Andromeda Andromedae And 139 Andromeda Andromeda
Antlia Antliae Ant 85 Pump Luftpumpe
Apus Apodis Aps 67 Swallow Paradiesvogel
Aquarius Aquarii Aqr 276 Cup-bearer Wassermann
Aquila Aquilae Aql 146 Eagle Adler
Ara Arae Ara 86 Altar Altar
Aries Arietis Ari 80 Ram Widder
Auriga Aurigae Aur 144 Charioteer Fuhrmann
Boötes Bootis Boo 140 Herdsman Bootes, Ochsentreiber
Caelum Caeli Cae 28 Sculptor's Chisel Grabstichel
Camelopardalis Camelopardalis Cam 138 Giraffe Giraffe
Cancer Cancri Can 92 Crab Krebs
Canes Venatici Canum Venaticorum CVn 88 Hunting Dogs Jagdhunde
Canis Major Canis Majoris CMa 178 Great Dog Großer Hund
Canis Minor Canis Minoris CMi 37 Little Dog Kleiner Hund
Capricornus Capricorni Cap 134 Horned Goat Steinbock
Carina Carinae Car 268 Keel Schiffskiel
Cassiopeia Cassiopeiae Cas 126 Cassiopeia Cassiopeia
Centaurus Centauri Cen 389 Centaur Centaur
Cepheus Cephei Cep 159 Cepheus Cepheus
Cetus Ceti Cet 321 Whale Wal
Chamaeleon Chamaeleontis Cha 50 Chameleon Chamaeleon
Circinus Circini Cir 48 Compass Kompass
Columba Columbae Col 112 Dove Taube
Coma Berenices Comae Com 70 Berenice's Hair Haar der Berenike
Corona Australis Coronae Australis CrA 49 Southern Crown Südliche Krone
Corona Borealis Coronae Aorealis CrB 31 Northern Crown Nördliche Krone
Corvus Corvi Crv 53 Raven Rabe
Crater Crateris Crt 53 Bowl Becher
Crux Crucis Cru 54 (Southern) Cross Kreuz
Cygnus Cygni Cyg 197 Swan Schwan
Delphinus Delphini Del 31 Dolphin Delfin
Dorado Doradus Dor 43 Dolphin-fish Schwertfisch
Draco Draconis Dra 200 Dragon Drache
Equuleus Equulei Equ 16 Foal Füllen
Eridanus Eridani Eri 293 Eridanus Eridanus
Fornax Fornacis For 110 Furnace Chemischer Ofen
Gemini Geminorum Gem 106 Twins Zwillinge
Grus Gruis Gru 106 Crane Kranich
Hercules Herculis Her 227 Hercules Hercules
Horologium Horologii Hor 68 Clock Pendeluhr
Hydra Hydrae Hya 393 Hydra Wasserschlange
Hydrus Hydri Hyi 64 Snake Männliche Wasserschlange
Indus Indi Ind 84 American Indian Indianer
Lacerta Lacertae Lac 48 Lizard Eidechse
Leo Leonis Leo 161 Lion Löwe
Leo Minor Leonis Minoris LMi 40 Smaller Lion Kleiner Löwe
Lepus Leporis Lep 103 Hare Hase
Libra Librae Lib 122 Balance Waage
Lupus Lupi Lup 159 Wolf Wolf
Lynx Lyncis Kyn 87 Lynx Luchs
Lyra Lyrae Lyr 69 Lyre Leier
Mensa Mensae Men 44 Table Tafelberg
Microscopium Microscopii Mic 69 Microscope Mikroskop
Monoceros Monocerotis Mon 165 Unicorn Einhorn
Musca Muscae Mus 75 Fly Fliege
Norma Normae Nor 64 Square Winkelmaß
Octans Octantis Oct 88 Octant Oktant
Ophiuchus Ophiuchi Oph 209 Ophiuchus Schlangenträger
Orion Orionis Ori 186 Orion Orion
Pavo Pavonis Pav 129 Peacock Pfau
Pegasus Pegasi Peg 178 Pegasus Pegasus
Perseus Persei Per 136 Perseus Perseus
Phoenix Phoenicis Phe 139 Phoenix Phönix
Pictor Pictori Pic 67 Easel Maler
Pisces Piscium Psc 128 Fish (plural) Fische
Piscis Austrinus Piscis Austrini PsA 75 Southern Fish Südliche Fische
Puppis Puppis Pup 313 Poop Hinterdeck
Pyxis Pyxidis Pyx 65 Box Kompass
Reticulum Reticuli Ret 34 Net Netz
Sagitta Sagittarae Sge 18 Arrow Pfeil
Sagittarius Sagittarii Sgr 298 Archer Schütze
Scorpius Scorpii Sco 185 Scorpion Skorpion
Sculptor Sculptoris Scl 131 Sculptor Bildhauer
Scutum Scuti Sct 33 Shield Schild
Serpens Serpentis Ser 123 Snake Schlange
Sextans Sextantis Sex 75 Sextant Sextant
Taurus Tauri Tau 188 Bull Stier
Telescopium Telescopii Tel 87 Telescope Fernrohr
Triangulum Trianguli Tri 227 Triangle Dreieck
Triangulum Australe Trianguli Australis TrA 46 Southern Triangle Südliches Dreieck
Tucana Tucanae Tuc 81 Toucan Tukan
Ursa Major Ursae Maioris UMa 227 Great Bear Großer Bär
Ursa Minor Ursae Minoris UMi 54 Little Bear Kleiner Bär
Vela Velorum Vel 248 Sails Segel
Virgo Virginis Vir 271 Virgin Jungfrau
Volans Volantis Vol 46 Flying Fish Fliegender Fisch
Vulpecula Vulpeculae Vul 62 Little Fox Füchschen

Note that Serpens is in two non-contiguous portions but is counted as a single constellation.


  1. New International version of the English Bible, Job 38:31-32
  2. According to Heis all stars up to a magnitude of 6m.7 on northern constellations and according to Gould up to a magnitude of 7m.0 on southern constellations