What are the different types of constellations?
Last Updated: December 5, 2022
Since ancient times, humans have not just gazed at the stars above them, but actually used their movements across the night sky to track time, navigate, and tell stories. From ancient times to today, we’ve grouped stars to create pictures called constellations.
Constellations help us group the numerous stars into recognizable shapes, but what are the different types of constellations and how can we segment them into easier groups? Let’s review the different types of constellations that help us segment the stars in the sky.
Constellation: Definition & Background
A constellation is a group of stars that can be connected to form a recognized shape. These shapes in the night sky have been used since ancient times as a way to navigate, track time and seasons, and pass down our myths, legends, and history. Each culture had its own constellations, but as an international community grew, communicating about the night sky across cultures became difficult.
In 1922, the International Astronomical Union created an international system of 88 official constellations, designated with Latin names. These constellations help us map the night sky, providing locations easily understood by anyone around the world for not just stars but also other astronomical objects.
An aphorism is a group of stars that creates a shape, but is not one of the 88 official constellations. They are often either part of an official constellation or parts of multiple constellations and do not have the same names throughout the world as they are often based on the original cultural constellations.
The Big Dipper is an aphorism, not a constellation. It is part of the constellation Ursa Major (Big Bear) comprising its tail and body, but is often called the Plow in England. The Summer Triangle is made up of the three brightest stars in three separate constellations: Vega in Lyra, Altair in Aquila, and Albireo in Cygnus.
In general, constellations represent either a human, an animal, or an object
Human shaped constellations
There are many people depicted in our constellations, most from mythology (typically Greek or Roman), including:
- Northern Human Constellations: Perseus, Hercules, Medusa, Auriga (the Charioteer)
- Southern Human Constellations: Orion (the Hunter), Sagittarius (the Archer), Virgo (the Maiden), Indus (the Indian)
There is one constellation that is actually named after a real, historical figure: Cassiopeia, the Queen. While most of our constellations draw from Greek or Roman mythology, European knowledge of the night sky was actually heavily influenced by scholars in the Middle East, particularly Egypt. One of their constellations was named after an ancient Queen and we later found her tomb, proving that she was a real Queen in an ancient African kingdom, not a myth.
Animal shaped constellations
We also have many constellations that depict animals, both real and mythological. Some of these animal constellations include:
- Northern Animal Constellations: Draco (the Dragon), Camelopardalis (the Giraffe), Ursa Major (Big Bear), Ursa Minor (Little Bear), Lacerta (the Lizard), Pegasus (the Winged Horse), Cygnus (the Swan)
- Southern Animal Constellations: Cetus (the Whale/ Sea Monster), Centaurus (the Centaur), Canis Major (Big Dog), Lepus (The Hare), Lupus (The wolf), Monoceros (the Unicorn), Tucana (the Toucan), Corvus (the Crow)
Object shaped constellations
Finally, constellations can represent objects/ places. There are many objects depicted in the night sky ranging from simple to complicated:
- Northern Object Constellations: Corona Borealis (Northern Crown), Triangulum (the Triangle), Sagitta (the Arrow)
- Southern Object Constellations:, Corona Australis (the Southern Crown), Crater (the Cup), Microscopium (the Microscope), Horologium (the Clock), Eridanus (the River), Mensa (the Table Mountain)
In general, while animals seem to be scattered throughout both, the Northern Hemisphere has more people constellations while the Southern Hemisphere has more object constellations.
Types of constellations
Northern and Southern Constellations: Your view of the night sky is primarily impacted by which hemisphere you are located in: Northern or Southern as that is the area of space you are looking at from your location here on Earth.
Below are the 88 constellations grouped by their location in the night sky in each hemisphere. Many can be viewed from either hemisphere though, especially around the equator.
36 Northern Hemisphere Constellations
- Andromeda, Aries, Cassiopeia, Orion, Perseus, Pisces, Taurus, Triangulum
- Auriga, Camelopardalis, Cancer, Canis Minor, Gemini, Leo , Leo Minor
- Lynx , Monoceros , Ursa Major , Boötes , Canes Venatici, Coma Berenices
- Corona Borealis, Draco, Hercules, Serpens, Ursa Minor, Aquila , Cepheus,
- Cygnus, Delphinus , Equuleus , Lacerta , Lyra, Pegasu, Sagitta, Vulpecula
52 Southern Hemisphere Constellations
- Caelum, Cetus, Columba, Dorado, Fornax, Horologium, Hydrus, Lepus
- Mensa, Phoenix, Pictor, Reticulum, Sculptor, Antlia, Canis Major, Carina, Chamaeleon
- Crater, Hydra, Puppis, Pyxis, Sextans, Vela , Volan, Apus, Ara, Centaurus, Circinus, Corvus
- Crux, Libra, Lupus, Musca, Norma, Ophiuchus, Scorpius, Triangulum Australe, Virgo
- Aquarius, Capricornus, Corona Australis, Grus, Indus, Microscopium, Octans, Pavo
- Piscis Austrinus, Sagittarius, Scutum, Telescopium, Tucana
These are around either our North or South poles and will appear to rotate around the pole. They are mostly visible all year long (though at different locations in their circle) for those in their hemisphere. Spying a circumpolar constellation in the opposite hemisphere is impossible and at the equator, you don’t see any circumpolar stars.
Northern Circumpolar Constellations: Ursa Major (Big Bear, Ursa Minor (Little Bear), Draco (the Dragon), Cepheus (the King), Cassiopeia (the Queen)
Southern Circumpolar Constellations: Crux (the Southern Cross), Carina (the Keel), Centaurus (the Centaur)
In addition to their circumpolar constellations, each hemisphere has seasonal constellations which rotate through the sky through the year. In the Northern Hemisphere, look to the south to find your seasonal constellations and in the Southern Hemisphere, look to the North.
Constellations will rise in the east, make their way slowly across the night sky, and then set in the west, providing a view of the last of the past season’s constellations at the beginning of the evening, this season’s constellations throughout most of the night, and a sneak peek of the next season in the final hours before sunrise.
Many seasonal constellations can be seen in either hemisphere depending on the time of year and location, especially if you are closer to the equator.
Especially since many constellations were used to tell stories in ancient times, we often group nearby constellations that tell a story together, but we also have more scientific groupings as well. In 1975, the director of the Harvard Observatory, Donald H. Menzel, separated all 88 constellations into groups in his A Field Guide to the Stars and Planets.
Zodiacal / Ecliptic constellations
The twelve constellations lie upon the ecliptic line where we see the Sun, Moon, and planets. These are fairly well-known due to their use in astrology which is the belief that the location of stars and planets impacts what a person is like and can predict their future. (Astronomy on the other hand is the scientific study of outer space including planets, stars, galaxies, and more.)
Related reading: Astronomy Vs Astrology: what are the differences between the two?
The zodiac constellations are seen around the world though they will be closer to the horizon the further you are away from the equator. They include:
Capricornus (the Sea-Goat), Aquarius (the Water Bearer), Pisces (the Fish), Aries (the Ram), Taurus (the Bull), Gemini (the Twins), Cancer (the Crab), Leo (the Lion), Virgo (the Virgin/ Maiden), Libra (the Scales), Scorpius (the Scorpion), Sagittarius (the Archer)
The astrology signs are based on when the sun is in the constellation, meaning that it will actually not be up in the night sky during its astrological season.
Note: Ophiuchus (the Serpent Bearer) also lies on the ecliptic, but has not historically been considered one of the zodiac signs in astrology and is therefore often not designated as a zodiac constellation. Menzel lists it under the Hercules Family.
Perseus/ Andromeda Family
One of the most famous families is based on the Perseus and Andromeda myth, boasting 7 constellations. A King (Cepheus) and a Queen (Cassiopeia) ruled over an ancient kingdom. They had a daughter (Andromeda) who was very beautiful, so beautiful that they boasted she was the most beautiful being ever created.
The sea nymphs didn’t like this and they commanded Zeus to intervene. He sent the Sea Monster (Cetus) to take Andromeda or destroy the kingdom. Faced with two terrible options, the king and queen decided to save their kingdom by chaining their daughter to the rocks for Cetus to take. Luckily, a hero (Perseus) was flying by on his winged horse (Pegasus).
He cut Andromeda from the rocks and then used the head of the Gorgon (Medusa) whom he had just slain to turn the sea monster into stone. Menzel also included neighboring Auriga (the Charioteer), Lacerta (the Lizard), and Triangulum (the Triangle) to complete the group.
Ursa Major Family
With the importance of the pole star in navigation, it makes sense to create a family of constellations around Ursa Major.
This family includes Ursa Major (Greater/ Big Bear), Ursa Minor (Little/ Lesser Bear), Draco (the Dragon, Canes Venatici (the Hunting Dogs), Boötes (the Herdsman), Coma Berenices (the Hair of Berenice), Corona Borealis (the Northern Crown), Camelopardalis (the Giraffe), Lynx, and Leo Minor (the Lesser/ Little Lion).
As one of the most recognizable constellations around the world, Orion definitely needed his own family to tell a story of a hunt: the hunter (Orion) and his two dogs (Canis Major and Canis Minor) chasing the hare (Lepus). Menzel also included neighboring Monoceros (the Unicorn) so it wouldn’t be left out.
This family of southern constellations around the southern pole includes those that were named mostly for exotic animals reported in the travel journals and were listed in Johann Bayer’s 1603 celestial atlas Uranometria.
These constellations are Hydrus (the Male Water Snake), Dorado (the Swordfish), Volans (the Flying Fish), Apus (the Bird of Paradise), Pavo (the Peacock), Grus (the Crane), Phoenix (the mythical firebird), Tucana (the Toucan), Indus (the Indian), Chamaeleon, and Musca (the Fly).
This family contains most of the constellations introduced by Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille in 1756, representing scientific instruments, together with Mensa, commemorating Table Mountain (“Mons Mensa”) in South Africa, where his observations were recorded.
The Lacaille Family includes Norma (the Carpenter’s Square), Circinus (the Drawing Compass), Telescopium (Telescope), Microscopium (Microscope), Sculptor (the Sculptor’s Tools), Fornax (the Furnace), Caelum (the Engraving Tool), Horologium (the Clock), Octans (the Octant), Mensa (the Table Mountain), Reticulum (the Reticle), Pictor (the Painter’s Easel), and Antlia (the Air Pump).
Heavenly Waters Family
Ancient Mesopotamian tradition depicted the god Ea and the Waters of the Abyss in the part of the night sky between Sagittarius and Orion so Menzel grouped all of the nearby constellations associated with water in this area (minus those in the Zodiac Family).
These include Delphinus (the Dolphin), Equuleus (the Little Horse), Eridanus (the River), Piscis Austrinus (the Southern Fish), Pyxis (the Mariner’s Compass), Columba (the Dove), Carina (the Keel), Puppis (the Stern), and Vela (the Sails).
The last three were all historically a part of the now-defunct Argo Navis constellation representing the Greek Ship Jason.
Menzel’s largest grouping, primarily based on their location.
This includes Hercules, Sagitta (the Arrow), Aquila (the Eagle), Lyra (the Lyre/ Harp), Cygnus (the Swan), Vulpecula (the Fox), Hydra (the Female Water Snake), Sextans (the Sextant), Crater (the Cup), Corvus (the Crow), Ophiuchus (the Serpent Bearer), Serpens (the Serpent), Scutum (the Shield), Centaurus (the Centaur), Lupus (the Wolf), Corona Australis (the Southern Crown), Ara (the Altar), Triangulum Australe (the Southern Triangle), and Crux (the Southern Cross).
Constellations group stars into recognizable shapes, making it easier for us to navigate the night sky full of stars. The different types of constellations further help segment the sky and aid in our discovery of the night sky, providing stories and cyclical context. We hope this has helped you better understand the constellations and the night sky.
Sarah Hoffschwelle is a freelance writer who covers a combination of topics including astronomy, general science and STEM, self-development, art, and societal commentary. In the past, Sarah worked in educational nonprofits providing free-choice learning experiences for audiences ages 2-99. As a lifelong space nerd, she loves sharing the universe with others through her words. She currently writes on Medium at https://medium.com/@sarah-marie and authors self-help and children’s books.
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