How Many Constellations Are There And How Were They Named?

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There are 88 constellations—groups of stars in the sky—which are named for mythological beings. Although some constellations may resemble the animals or people they are named for, others were merely named in honor of those figures. The constellations are spread throughout the whole celestial sphere, the imaginary sphere in space that surrounds the Earth.

Constellations are visible on any clear night. The particular constellations you can see depends on your location, the time of year, and the time of night. As the Earth makes its daily rotation about its axis and its yearly revolution around the sun, the celestial sphere appears to shift. As a result, different constellations come into view.

Until 1930, the constellations had no fixed boundaries. In that year the International Astronomical Union defined limits for the constellations that are still accepted today. These boundaries are imaginary lines, running north to south and east to west across the entire celestial sphere. Every point in the sky exists within one of the sections that is named for the constellation it contains.

The naming of constellations began in ancient times. Alexandrian (Egyptian) astronomer (a scientist specializing in the study of matter in outer space) Ptolemy, in A.D. 1400, indexed the original 48 constellations. All of these except one are still considered constellations. Several new constellations were defined in later centuries, mostly in previously unexplored parts of the sky in the Southern Hemisphere (the portion of the Earth south of the equator).

Many of the constellations were originally given Greek names. These names were later replaced by their Latin translations, names by which they are still known today. Some of these include Aquila (the Eagle); Cancer (the Crab); Cygnus (the Swan); and Leo (the Lion).

Individual stars in a constellation are usually assigned Greek letters in the order of brightness: the brightest star is alpha, the second brightest is beta, and so on. The possessive (or genitive) form of the constellation name is used in individual stars. Alpha Orionis, for example, is the brightest star in the constellation Orion.

Constellation Genitive Abbreviation Meaning
Andromeda Andromedae And Chained Maiden
Antlia Antliae Ant Air Pump
Apus Apodis Aps Bird of Paradise
Aquarius Aquarii Aqr Water Bearer
Aquila Aquilae Aql Eagle
Ara Arae Ara Altar
Aries Arietis Ari Ram
Auriga Aurigae Aur Charioteer
Bootes Bootis Boo Herdsman
Caelum Caeli Cae Chisel
Camelopardalis Camelopardalis Cam Giraffe
Cancer Cancri Cnc Crab
Canes Venatici Canum Venaticorum CVn Hunting Dogs
Canis Major Canis Majoris CMa Big Dog
Canis Minor Canis Minoris CMi Little Dog
Capricornus Capricorni Cap Goat
Carina Carinae Car Ship's Keel
Cassiopeia Cassiopeiae Cas Queen of Ethiopia
Centaurus Centauri Cen Centaur
Cepheus Cephei Cep King of Ethiopia
Cetus Ceti Cet Whale
Chamaeleon Chamaeleonis Cha Chameleon
Circinus Circini Cir Compass
Columba Columbae Col Dove
Coma Berenices Comae Berenices Com Berenice's Hair
Corona Australis Coronae Australis CrA Southern Crown
Corona Borealis Coronae Borealis CrB Northern Crown
Corvus Corvi Crv Crow
Crater Crateris Crt Cup
Crux Crucis Cru Southern Cross
Cygnus Cygni Cyg Swan
Delphinus Delphini Del Dolphin
Dorado Doradus Dor Goldfish
Draco Draconis Dra Dragon
Equuleus Equulei Equ Little Horse
Eridanus Eridani Eri River Eridanus
Fornax Fornacis For Furnace
Gemini Geminorum Gem Twins
Grus Gruis Gru Crane
Hercules Herculis Her Hercules
Horologium Horologii Hor Clock
Hydra Hydrae Hya Hydra, Greek monster
Hydrus Hydri Hyi Sea Serpent
Indus Indi Ind Indian
Lacerta Lacertae Lac Lizard
Leo Leonis Leo Lion
Leo Minor Leonis Minoris LMi Little Lion
Lepus Leporis Lep Hare
Libra Librae Lib Scales
Lupus Lupi Lup Wolf
Lynx Lyncis Lyn Lynx
Lyra Lyrae Lyr Lyre or Harp
Mensa Mensae Men Table Mountain
Microscopium Microscopii Mic Microscope
Monoceros Monocerotis Mon Unicorn
Musca Muscae Mus Fly
Norma Normae Nor Carpenter's Square
Octans Octanis Oct Octant
Ophiuchus Ophiuchi Oph Serpent Bearer
Orion Orionis Ori Orion, the Hunter
Pavo Pavonis Pav Peacock
Pegasus Pegasi Peg Winged Horse
Perseus Persei Per Perseus, a Greek hero
Phoenix Phoenicis Phe Phoenix
Pictor Pictoris Pic Painter
Pisces Piscium Psc Fish
Piscis Austrinus Piscis Austrini PsA Southern Fish
Puppis Puppis Pup Ship's Stern
Pyxis Pyxidis Pyx Ship's Compass
Reticulum Reticuli Ret Net
Sagitta Sagittae Sge Arrow
Sagittarius Sagittarii Sgr Archer
Scorpius Scorpii Sco Scorpion
Sculptor Sculptoris Scl Sculptor
Scutum Scuti Set Shield
Serpens Serpentis Ser Serpent
Sextans Sextantis Sex Sextant
Taurus Tauri Tau Bull
Telescopium Telescopii Tel Telescope
Triangulum Trianguli Tri Triangle
Triangulum Australe Triangli Australis TrA Southern Australe Triangle
Tucana Tucanae Tuc Toucan
Ursa Major Ursae Majoris UMa Big Bear
Ursa Minor Ursae Minoris UMi Little Bear
Vela Velorum Vel Ship's Sail
Virgo Virginis Vir Virgin
Volans Volantis Vol Flying Fish
Vulpecula Vulpeculae Vul Little Fox

Sources: Engelbert, Phillis. Astronomy and Space: From the Big Bang to the Big Crunch, vol. 1, pp. 108-11; Famighetti, Robert, ed. The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1996, pp. 287-88; The Universal Almanac 1992, pp. 484-85.

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