Up in the Night Sky: Most Iconic Constellations
Space, time, and the universe can seem like a big topic to understand, especially if you have very little experience. One way that people approach this complex topic is by cultivating an appreciation of constellations.
There are several constellations that are easily visible from Earth on a clear night. By slowly working your way up from basic constellations like the Big Dipper through larger, more complex ones like Cassiopeia and Gemini, we can gradually understand more about our galaxy. To expand your own understanding, here are some of the most iconic constellations identified over the years.
The Big Dipper
Most people know how to identify the Big Dipper, also known as the Plough in the UK and the Ladle in China, Japan, and Korea. It’s visible from the Northern Hemisphere all year round and features several stars that are quite easy to spot because of their prominence and luminosity.
It may surprise you, but technically the Big Dipper isn’t a constellation. Actually, it’s considered an asterism, which is an easily recognizable pattern of stars that hasn’t officially been accepted as a constellation. The Big Dipper is made up of seven named stars — Dubhe, Merak, Phecda, Megrez, Alioth, Mizar, and Alkaid — which are visible to the naked eye and an eighth, Alcor, which appears to be part of Mizar but is actually separate.
Ursa Major (Great Bear) is one of the most famous constellations because it contains the easy-to-see asterism the Big Dipper within it. It’s the third largest constellation in the sky and can be identified by first picking out the Big Dipper, which makes up the hindquarters of the bear shape.
If you’re using a telescope, you can see several bright galaxies within the area of Ursa Major. It’s thought that the story of this constellation’s name dates back to Paleolithic times. However, the most famous story comes from Roman mythology.
Jupiter, King of the Gods, lusts after a mortal woman named Callisto, so Jupiter’s jealous wife Juno turns her into a bear, so she no longer attracts his attention. Jupiter honors Callisto by putting her into the sky as a constellation in the shape of a bear.
Ursa Minor (Lesser Bear) is another easy constellation for beginners. It features Polaris, the North Star, at one end, which is the brightest visible star in the night sky. Ursa Minor can also be called the Little Dipper because some people imagine that it’s shaped like a dipper or ladle rather than a bear.
There are seven stars that make up Ursa Minor. Polaris is at the tip of the handle or tail shape which is made of three stars, and a further four stars make up the body. It’s a useful constellation to be able to identify because Polaris can be used for navigation.
Another constellation that’s quite easy to spot with the naked eye is Cassiopeia since it’s made up of five stars that are known for their luminosity. This constellation forms the shape of the letter “W”. If you’re using a telescope to look at it, you can see several galaxies that run through it, as well as a conspicuous section of the Milky Way.
This constellation is named for Queen Cassiopeia. She is a prominent human figure of Greek mythology who angered the god Poseidon after bragging that her daughter was more beautiful than the sea nymphs who were his companions.
Cassiopeia covers 598.4 square degrees or 1.451 percent of the night sky.
Named in honor of Orpheus’s harp, Lyra pays tribute to this romantic figure of Greek mythology. The constellation is easily visible, especially in the summer.
During the summer, it can be spotted within the “summer triangle” of Vega, Deneb, and Altair. These are three bright stars in three separate constellations that are the first to come out after sunset during a clear summer night. Once you find Vega, look slightly beyond it to find stars that make the shape of a parallelogram. Lyra looks like a parallelogram with a tail with Vega located at the tail’s tip.
If you’re looking at Lyra with a telescope, you’ll be able to see the Ring Nebula.
Another constellation within the summer triangle is Aquila, which is the Latin word for eagle. The brightest star in the Aquila constellation is Altair, which is one of the three that make up the summer triangle.
Once you locate Altair, look for the two faint stars on either side of it, which make up one part of the diamond-shaped Aquila. Binoculars or a telescope will help you find the rest of the constellation, which is easiest to see with the naked eye in July.
Aquila gets its name from the eagle who kidnaped the human Ganymede. He was a young boy that enchanted Greek god Zeus so much that he flew him to Mt. Olympus to be his cupbearer.
The southernmost constellation of the Zodiac is Scorpius, a J-shaped constellation that looks like the curled tail of a poisonous scorpion. It’s located between Libra and Sagittarius and is made up of many visible stars including red-hued Antares.
Scorpius is highest in the sky during July and August around 10 p.m. at night, which makes it easier to see the two large stars Shaula and Lesath at the very tip of what would be the scorpion’s tail. Scorpius contains several interesting deep-sky objects, including open clusters of stars and parts of the Milky Way.
Initially, when the astrological signs were first being codified, Libra and Scorpius were counted as one.
The 11th astrological sign is Aquarius, whose shape is meant to look like a human holding a jar of water. Some mythology associates the beautiful cupbearer Ganymede with Aquarius, while other stories insist that this figure represents Deucalion, a Noah-like figure who built a ship with his wife Pyrrha to survive a global flood.
It might take practice before you can pick Aquarius out of the sky. While it contains many stars, none of which are particularly luminous. In the Northern Hemisphere, it’s easiest to see in the fall. In particular, October evenings around 9 p.m. will give you the best view. The easiest star in Aquarius to spot is Alpha Aquarii, a yellow giant located in the center of the Y-shape of Aquarius’s water jar.
Although it’s not easy to spot in the Northern Hemisphere, locating Canis Major (Greater Dog) is a lot easier when you travel down to the Southern Hemisphere.
The constellation contains Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Due to its location as part of the Canis Major constellation, Sirius is often called the “dog star”. Sirius is located right where the collar would be on a dog, while four other luminous stars make up the two paws, hindquarters, and tail of the dog shape.
This is a fun constellation to try and spot with children since it’s not hard to picture the dog shape.
To find Canis Minor, you’ll first need to spot Procyon, the seventh-brightest star in the sky that makes up part of the “winter triangle”. The winter triangle is made up of three stars — Procyon, Betelgeuse, and Sirius — that are easy to spot on a winter’s night. There are only two stars in Canis Minor that are visible to the naked eye, so without a telescope, this small constellation is difficult to spot.
Canis Minor gets its name from several different dogs in Greek mythology, including Orion’s hunting dogs.
Gemini is one of 12 zodiac constellations. It represents the twins Castor and Pollux who asked the gods if they could share one twin’s immortality between the two of them. Zeus agreed and transformed the boys into a single constellation.
To the naked eye, the constellation of Gemini is shaped like a gigantic “U” and contains 85 stars that are visible without the aid of a telescope. In keeping with the mythology, the two brightest stars in the Gemini constellation are named Castor and Pollux.
If you’re able to use a telescope to see the entire constellation, it looks like two connected stick figures.