The 88 recognized Constellations: The stunning residents of the night sky

-written by Ritika Pandey, reviewed by Muskan Agarwal

I am sure you have often heard of the phrase: “Curiosity kills the cat”. However, history is the witness that curiosity has been the origin of many discoveries. One such concept that came into existence due to curiosity is the concept of constellations. Our ancestors wandered far lands to discover the mysteries that our Earth held, and when they started wondering about the celestial objects that shone brightly in the dark sky they got invested.

This led to the foundation of the field of astronomy ages ago. On observing the night sky and the stars, they connected the dots and started to understand the patterns that these stars formed. These patterns spread across various cultures and regions, and each culture formed its own stories and shapes associated with the stars. 

Want to read about another case where curiosity led to amazing discoveries? Check out: Friedmann’s astounding work: Not just a WW1 Russian pilot

But the question still lingers, when did the human race first-ever record constellations? If we were to believe archaeologists, then the cave systems at Lascaux in South France are believed to be the first-ever recorded paintings of celestial objects. The paintings in the cave system are expected to be 17,300 years old. It is very surprising indeed to think that our ancestors who didn’t have access to any of the advanced technologies that we have today were able to not only notice the celestial patterns but also draw them. It is thought that the drawing is the deception of the Pleiades star cluster alongside the Hyades cluster.

Source: ‘Lascaux Cave Constellations – myths mysteries & wonders’, retrieved 2022

Presently there are 88 official constellations present in our celestial sphere. We know that 48 out of these 88 were due to the contribution of Ptolemy. But that is exactly where the problem lies. Sure there is a description of the constellations but the records lack the knowledge about the origin of any of these astronomical patterns. However, the rest of the constellations were due to the contribution of the European astronomers and cartographers between the 16th and the 17th century. These discoveries were made possible because the European astronomers were the first to ever explore the southern hemisphere.

Source: ‘What are the southern hemisphere constellations?’ | Socratic, retrieved 2022

As discussed previously our ancestors and even the ancient astronomers such as Ptolemy, formed the constellations based on the shapes that were formed due to the star patterns. This was acceptable for a long time, but then the field of astronomy went under major developments with advancements in technology and various new inventions. So as the 20th century began there was a need to form more standardized constellations. And that is where the IAU comes into the picture. IAU stands for International Astronomical Union and is a non-government organization that is officially focused on the advancement of astronomy. 

Before getting into further details, let’s look into what exactly are constellations? Constellations are the guiding map through the celestial sphere that helps us navigate through the night sky. Now, what exactly is the need for this standardization? Well to put it in simple words the standardization of the constellations will mean more accurate navigation through the night sky. So how exactly can we achieve this standardization? Well IAU has got us covered.

IAU has defined constellations by fixed boundaries that are independent of the star patterns. This helps us in clearly distinguishing where a constellation starts and where it ends. Each constellation defined by IAU in the celestial sphere is bounded in between the arcs of declination and right ascension.

Source: ‘Where to get the modern Constellations as a vector File?’, StackExchange, retrieved 2022

However, constellations are often misunderstood with asterisms. Asterisms are just the patterns in the night sky that aren’t officially recognized by the IAU as constellations. However, due to their prominence in the night sky, asterisms are very popular amongst amateur astronomers and laymen as they assist in navigating through the night sky.

One very popular example of asterisms is “The Big Dipper” or the “Saptarshi” (Indian name). Asterisms or constellations, there is one thing that we all need to understand about these stars. Even though it might appear that the stars are together in the night sky, it doesn’t necessarily imply that they are actually together in space. To put it in simple words, constellations are just based on our perspective, i.e., the ones standing on the Earth. 

Source: ‘The Big Dipper Asterism – Facts & Info • The Planets’, retrieved 2022

Every constellation name in Latin has two different forms:

1. Nominative form

Used when we are talking about the constellation itself 

2. Genitive form 

Used to name the star within the constellation. 

Apart from this, IAU has also come up with the abbreviation of all the constellation names. This abbreviation consists of only three alphabets. For instance, in the constellation of Andromeda, the abbreviation is And, and for the constellation Draco, it is Dra. When it comes to pronouncing the names of the constellations, IAU is very lenient.

It is very easy to understand what constellation a person is talking about even if they use a very different pronunciation of the name of the constellation, and due to this reason, IAU has declared that there is no need for any official pronunciation. So next time you are stargazing, you don’t need to overthink about the proper way to say the name of the constellation! 

Happy Stargazing!

Enjoyed reading this article? Consider reading: Binary Systems: 4 spectacular types of Binaries and their applications

1 Comment

  • Milan
    Posted July 29, 2022 9:12 am 0Likes

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