A constellation is a group of stars visible with the naked eye that form imaginary shapes or outlines of objects. The International Astronomical Union recognizes 88 different constellations.

The term 'constellation' is derived from the Latin for set of stars. Since very early civilization, humans have looked up at the night sky at the stars and started to see pictures in the arrangements of the stars. Different cultures adopted different stories to explain these patterns. People thought that stars represented mythological people, animals, gods, or objects.

There are currently 88 modern constellations based on 48 listed by Ptolemy. These 88 different patterns were ratified and listed by the International Astronomical Union in 1928. In Astrology the signs of the zodiac are represented by twelve constellations. To astrologers these may be important, but to astronomers they are no more important that the other constellations.

The Orion constellation is made up of seven major stars and is named after a hunter from Greek mythology. Nearly all of the stars in the constellation are young stars. Betelgeuse is a red supergiant star that makes up part of the Orion constellation. It forms his right shoulder. Alnilam, Mintaka, and Alnitak are the stars that make up Orion’s belt. These are three stars that appear to be in a straight line. Rigel is the brightest star in the constellation and forms Orion’s left foot.

There are also groups of stars known as asterisms which aren’t officially recognized by the International Astronomical Union as constellations, but they are well known around the world. An example of an asterism is the Big Dipper (also known as the Plow) which forms part of the constellation Ursa Major. Asterisms can be formed by part of a constellation or sometimes stars from multiple constellations.

Famous Constellation Examples

  • Cassiopeia
  • Andromeda
  • Ursa Major
  • Ursa Minor

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Learn more about the stars and other celestial bodies in our Picture Encyclopedia of Astronomy Terms!
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