Select Page

Insights Into the Constellations

If you love looking up at the night sky, you might be able to point out a few of the constellations and important stars. These groups of stars have helped guide travelers for millennia, and have also served as important cultural touchstones. Storytellers, astrologers, and more have all used constellations to help make sense of the world. But what are these patterns in the sky? Read on for a quick explanation of what constellations are.

What Are Constellations?

A constellation is a group of stars that appears to form a pattern or image. Because there is no real pattern to how stars are distributed, constellations can be a bit more abstract. But once you learn to recognize the patterns, these can be useful in orienting yourself and locating other, smaller groups of stars. There are 88 ‘official’ constellations which are commonly referred to when discussing these star groups.

How Are Constellations Named?

Largely, constellations are named after animals, symbols, and heroes from ancient myths.

Because stars in the sky are so far away from us, they don’t seem to move very quickly – similar to when we drive past a rural field, objects closer to the road zip past but objects far away slowly drift by. In ancient times, there were not many ways for people to guide their explorations. But since the stars in the sky don’t appear to move, ancient travelers and astronomers would use certain constellations to find their way.

Ancient cultures all over the world, such as African, Asian, and American ones, have had their own names and patterns that they used for the stars, but a majority of the officially recognized constellations come from  Greek, Roman, and Middle Eastern astronomers. These “ancient” constellations are the easiest to recognize. Of the 88 constellations we recognize today, 50 of them come from ancient astronomers. These 50 are easily seen by the bare eye thanks to how bright their stars are.

The 38 “modern” constellations have come with the advent of modern telescopes and more star patterns were identified, filling in sections of the night sky that lacked ancient constellations. Modern telescopes allowed astronomers to find dimmer stars to make their own patterns. These modern constellations have helped astronomers orient themselves in the night sky.

Modern astronomers tried to continue naming constellations using ancient images. Modern constellations include the Southern Cross, the Unicorn, and the Phoenix.