The study of constellations began a few thousand years ago when our ancestors observed a number of stars and tried to connect them together through imaginary lines while practising stargazing. This interconnection of stars via imaginary lines is known as a constellation. Constellations appear to be forming patterns that resemble the shapes of animals, objects, or humans. The purpose of a constellation is to tell time and navigate through places on land and in seas. In other words, a constellation is a group of stars that tend to form a specific shape or a pattern.
1. Ursa Major
The Ursa major also known as the great bear is a constellation of 7 stars. The Ursa major can be easily located by tracking down the big dipper. As per the Ancient Greeks and Romans, a mythological belief is associated with the Ursa major, which states that a majestic king grabbed the tail of the great bear, swung it around, and threw it into the sky. In their opinion, the bear is destined to spin around the North Pole forever. Also, some Native Americans believed that the three stars located on the tail side were the hunters that were chasing the Bear.
2. Ursa Minor
The Ursa minor is also known as the little bear. It is picturised as a baby bear that has a long tail, where the four stars forming a cup-like shape represent the body of the bear; whereas, the rest three stars form its tail. It can be easily located with the help of the Polaris or the pole star, which situated at the end of the imaginary bear’s tail. Ursa minor is always aligned along the axis of the earth.
Orion is a group of stars that represent a hunter. The three stars aligned one after another makes up his belt, Betelgeuse i.e., the tenth brightest star in the sky is situated on the top left forms the hunter’s armpit, Rigel present on the bottom right forms his front foot, and the rest of the stars tend to fill up for the body and the bow. It is most clearly visible during the winters and is considered to be one of the easiest constellations to locate and observe. The location of the brightest star in the sky i.e., Sirius can be located with the help of the belt stars of Orion.
Cassiopeia is the constellation of 5 stars forming a ‘W’ or ‘M’ like shape. It is very easy to locate and observe even with the naked eye. The five bright stars that make up the constellation Cassiopeia are Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon Cassiopeia. During the northern summers, it is found below the pole star; whereas, during the winters, it is seen above it. As per Greek mythology, Cassiopeia was a narcissistic queen. She was the mother of princess Andromeda. Cassiopeia used to brag a lot about her unmatched beauty due to which she was cursed to stay in the sky with the people continuously gawking at her. This vain of the queen is considered to be the mythological reason why the constellation is the most popular and easy to recognise.
The Puppis constellation consists of a total number of 5 stars. It represents the deck of a ship. Zeta Puppis is the brightest star existing in this constellation. It is located in the southern hemisphere right next to the Canis Major hence, is easy to locate. According to Greek mythology, the Puppis was the stern of the ship, which was used by Jason and the Argonauts to get the Golden Fleece.
Aries is a constellation of 4 or 5 visible stars that tend to trace the body of the ram up from the head to the back. Hamal is the largest and the brightest star of the constellation. It is mentioned in Greek mythology that Aries was a ram whose fleece turned into golden fleece. During the ancient days, the golden fleece was considered to be a symbol of power and kingship. The best time to observe Aries is during the month of December.
Taurus represent the shape of a bull. The stars forming a ‘V’ shape make up the head and horns of the bull. Aldebaran, the thirteenth brightest star in the sky and the brightest star of the constellation represents the right eye of the bull. It also consists of yet another famous star known as the Pleiades. Taurus is situated right above the Orion hence, it is easy to locate once Orion has been tracked down. The group of stars forming the imaginary bull is present right in front of the group of stars that make up the bow of the hunter compelled Sumerians to believe that the Orion or the hunter was chasing the Taurus or the bull with his bow and arrow.
The constellation Gemini is also known as the twins. It is located in the northern hemisphere slightly above the raised arm of the hunter. The constellation represents two hand holding twins; where the human on the left appears to be lifting a leg. As per Greek mythology, Castor and Pollux are the names of the stars that represent the heads of the twins. To a person observing Gemini via the naked eye, it appears to be roughly shaped like the English alphabet ‘U’. The twins are present along with the Orion hence, the best time to view Gemini is during the winters.
Cancer is the constellation that forms the structure of a crab; however, all the stars of the Cancer constellation are not properly visible with the naked eyes. Hence, it appears to look like an inverted English alphabet ‘Y’. It is located between the constellations forming the shape of a lion known as Leo and the twins called Gemini. It is the faintest constellations amongst all the other zodiac constellations.
Leo is one of the largest constellations present in the sky. It is easy to locate Leo because of the pointer stars of the big dipper. The name Leo and its significance is derived from the Nemean lion in Greek mythology. It lies in the northern hemisphere between the constellations Cancer and Virgo. To locate the constellation Leo in the sky, the observer must try to find a backwards question mark-like pattern. The best time to view Leo is during the months of March, April and May.
Virgo lies between the constellations Leo and Libra. It is the second-largest constellation in the sky. The brightest star of the constellation is Spica, which is the 15th brightest star in the sky. The best time to view Virgo is during the months of March and April. It is present in the southern hemisphere and can be located by following the curve of the big dipper. According to the Babylonians, it represents the goddess of fertility and is pictured as a winged maiden with an ear of wheat in her left hand. In Greek mythology, Virgo is associated with the goddess of justice, Dike.
The meaning of the word ‘Libra’ in the Latin language is weighing balance. It lies between constellations Scorpius and Virgo. The best time to observe Libra is during the month of June. Libra is the only constellation out of all zodiac constellations that represents an object and not an animal. Mythologically, the weighing scales formed by the stars of the constellation relate to the weighing balance held by the Greek goddess of justice. Beta Librae or Zubeneschamali is the brightest star of the constellation. The stars making up the constellation are not bright enough hence, it is faintly visible.
Scorpius constellation consists of 13 stars out of which the brightest star is Antares or Alpha Scorpii. Antares is located at the head of the imaginary scorpion figure. As per Greek mythology, the Scorpius constellation is a resemblance to the animal scorpion whose sting was responsible for the death of Orion, the hunter. Hence, both Orion and Scorpius are considered to be archenemies, which explains the reason why both the constellations are located at the opposite ends of the sky. The best time to observe Scorpius is around 10 o’clock in the evening of the months of July and August.
Sagittarius is the fifteenth largest constellation in the sky. It is picturised as an archer and is located in the fourth quadrant of the southern hemisphere. The brightest star present in the Sagittarius constellation is Kaus Australis or Epsilon Sagittarii. As stated in Greek mythology, Sagittarius portrays a centaur, which is a half-human and half-horse creature. The torso of a centaur is that of a man whereas, it has four legs like a horse. The archer represented by the Sagittarius constellation is depicted to be pointing the arrow towards the heart of the constellation Scorpius.
In the Latin language, the word Capricorn means goat. It is the 40th biggest constellation present in the sky. The brightest star of the constellation Capricorn is Deneb Algedi, which in Arabic means ‘the tail of the goat’. Mythologically, it represents a goat-fish that is a fictional creature having half body of a goat and half the body of a fish. It is very difficult for an observer to locate the Capricorn constellation directly because it is very faintly visible to the naked eye.
Aquarius, the word means water-bearer and has a Latin origin. It is present between the constellations Capricorn and Pisces. It can be seen from both hemispheres. Aquarius can be best observed during the month of September. It does not possess stars with a brightness magnitude greater than 3. Hence, despite being one of the greatest constellations in the sky, it is quite difficult to locate Aquarius. The brightest star available in the Aquarius is the Beta star. The Egyptians believe that the constellation Aquarius represents the god of the Nile.
The Latin meaning of the word Pisces is the fish. It can be easily spotted in either of the hemispheres during the month of September and October. The Pisces constellation consists of a total of 10 stars out of which Eta Piscium is the brightest. The Babylonians assumed the constellation to bear the shape of two fishes that are connected to each other via a cord. Andromeda, Aquarius, and Aries are some of the constellations that are present around Pisces.
The constellation Auriga is shaped like a pentagon. Capella, which is the sixth brightest star in the night sky and is about 43 light-years away from the earth, is the main and the brightest star in Auriga. During the second century, Auriga was one of the 48 constellations observed by the astronomer Ptolemy. It is located in the first quadrant of the northern hemisphere. It is depicted as a female goat, her kids, and a chariot.
Hydra is the largest constellation in the sky. It is located in the second quadrant of the southern hemisphere. In Greek mythology, Hydra represents a water snake. It is present between the Libra and Centaurus constellation. It consists of 13 stars. Alpha Hydrae or Alphard is the brightest star of the constellation. It belongs to the Hercules family of constellations.
Andromeda is one of the oldest constellations in the night sky. It is quite easy to observe Andromeda because it is located right next to the constellation Cassiopeia and is visible throughout the year. According to Greek mythology, Andromeda was the daughter of Cassiopeia and King Cepheus. Andromeda is the nineteenth largest constellation and has Alpheratz as its brightest star.