The Evolution of the Constellations

The Evolution of the Constellations


88 official Constellations currently define our night sky.  At one point in time there were many more and both the Chinese and the Maya developed their own interpretations.  The classical foundation for our current set of constellations goes back to the Greeks when Ptolemy defined 48 fundamental star groupings including the 12 constellations that define the Zodiac.  Much of his work was based on past identification of constellations developed by the Babylonians and the Sumerians. 

Image by : NASA


The Changing Constellations

Two factors affect our view of the constellations.  One is how they have been identified and named, and a second is how they have evolved.  In fact, it was the British Astronomer Edmond Halley who first determined that the stars are not fixed, but are in fact moving through space.  This defines the second view of our constellations.  They will change and have been for millions of years.  Our ability to see significant change in constellations is limited by our life span.  In fact, Halley was using Greek star charts from 1600 years ago to determine a very small and almost imperceptible change of the stars Aldebaran, Sirius and Arcturus. 


The fact of the matter is that the stars we see as a flat pattern in the night sky are in fact points in 3-dimensional space.  To our eyes they seem to combine into a flat panel of arrangements, but their location and their movements vary widely.  If we could flash forward 50,000 years the Plough (Big Dipper) in the Constellation of Ursa Major would look more like a fish than a dipper.  By the way, an "asterism" is an arrangement of stars that is typically part of a constellation.  The Big Dipper and the Little Dipper are not constellations, but rather unique patterns called "asterisms" within Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Put on your 3D red cyan glasses and have a look how spaced out the stars of Orion really are on the picture below.

Orion 3D red-green.png

Image by: Periferomenos


By 200,000 AD many constellations and asterisms have become completely unrecognizable. This includes once famous groups of stars like the Big Dipper, Orion, Ursa Major, Perseus and Gemini.


With regards to naming of the constellations there is a bit of variance from noble, ancient names like Aquarius and Orion to curiously contemporary names like  Microscopium and Telescopium. 

All 88 Constellations

Here's a list of the current 88 names of the constellations and their meaning:


Latin Name                                        Meaning         


Andromeda                           Daughter of Cassiopeia      

Antlia                                    The Air Pump      

Apus                                     Bird of Paradise  

Aquarius                               The Water-Bearer  

Aquila                                   The Eagle         

Ara                                        The Altar         

Aries                                     The Ram           

Auriga                                   The Charioteer    

Boötes                                   The Herdsman      

Caelum                                  The Chisel        

Camelopardalis                     The Giraffe       

Cancer                                   The Crab          

Canes Venatici                       The Hunting Dogs  

Canis Major                           The Big Dog       

Canis Minor                          The Little Dog    

Capricornus                          The Goat          

Carina                                   The Keel (of Argo)

Cassiopeia                            The Queen         

Centaurus                             The Centaur       

Cepheus                                The King          

Cetus                                    The Whale         

Chamaeleon                          The Chameleon     

Circinus                                The Compasses     

Columba                               The Dove          

Coma Berenices                    Berenice's Hair   

Corona Australis                  The Southern Crown      

Corona Borealis                    The Northern Crown     

Corvus                                  The Crow          

Crater                                    The Cup           

Crux                                      The Cross         

Cygnus                                 The Swan          

Delphinus                             The Dolphin       

Dorado                                  The Swordfish     

Draco                                    The Dragon        

Equuleus                               The Little Horse  

Eridanus                                The River         

Fornax                                   The Furnace       

Gemini                                  The Twins         

Grus                                      The Crane (bird)  

Hercules                                The Son of Zeus   

Horologium                           The Clock         

Hydra                                   The Water Snake (female)  

Hydrus                                 The Water Snake (male)  

Indus                                     The Indian (American)       

Lacerta                                  The Lizard        

Leo                                        The Lion          

Leo Minor                               The Little Lion   

Lepus                                    The Hare          

Libra                                     The Balance       

Lupus                                   The Wolf          

Lynx                                     The Lynx          

Lyra                                      The Lyre          

Mensa                                   The Table         

Microscopium                      The Microscope    

Monoceros                           The Unicorn       

Musca                                   The Fly           

Norma                                   The Square        

Octans                                  The Octant        

Ophiuchus                             The Serpent-Bearer      

Orion                                    The Hunter

Pavo                                      The Peacock

Pegasus                                 The Winged Horse

Perseus                                 Rescuer of Andromeda

Phoenix                                 The Phoenix

Pictor                                    The Painter

Pisces                                    The Fishes

Piscis Austrinus                   The Southern Fish

Puppis                                  The Stern (of Argo)

Pyxis                                     The Compass

Reticulum                             The Reticle

Sagitta                                   The Arrow

Sagittarius                             The Archer

Scorpius                                The Scorpion

Sculptor                                The Sculptor

Scutum                                  The Shield

Serpens                                 The Serpent

Sextans                                  The Sextant

Taurus                                  The Bull

Telescopium                         The Telescope

Triangulum                           The Triangle

Triangulum Australe             The Southern Triangle

Tucana                                  The Toucan

Ursa Major                           The Great Bear

Ursa Minor                           The Little Bear

Vela                                       The Sails (of Argo)

Virgo                                     The Maiden

Volans                                   The Flying Fish

Vulpecula                              The Fox


As you run down this list you may find some curious definitions.  Many of these are attributable to Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille .  He was a French astronomer stationed in South Africa between 1751 and 1753.  He observed many new star arrangements and catalogued the position of more than 9,000 stars.  He also created 14 new constellations based on faint stars that only appeared in the Southern hemisphere.  Curiously, he chose an uncommon naming approach based more on the technology of the day rather than the mythology of the past.  As a result we have constellations called "The Furnace," "The Air Pump,"  "The Pendulum Clock,"  "The Microscope," and "The Telescope."  These naming conventions continue to this day although all have Latin names defining them.

Sidney Hall - Urania's Mirror - Sagittarius and Corona Australis, Microscopium, and Telescopium.jpg

Image from 1824 showing constellations microscopium and telescopium

It's fortunate the constellations take time to change.  Otherwise, it could make our astronomical viewing all a bit complicated.  It's also to our advantage that the names and locations have been agreed upon.  Even if some of them sound more like household appliances rather than Greek gods.

Want to find out more about the constellations? Have a look at the constellation guide.

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