The Constellations: Definition & Name Origins

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  • 0:05 What Are Ancient…
  • 0:39 Ancient Constellations
  • 1:43 Modern Constellations
  • 2:59 What Is an Asterism?
  • 4:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
This lesson will teach you about ancient constellations and how they came to be. We'll define modern constellations and learn why they're important. You'll also learn about the differences between a constellation and an asterism.

What Are Ancient Constellations?

I live in a really big city. So big, that the light pollution obscures all but the brightest stars in the night sky. But, when you go out far into the country, far away from any big city, the night sky lights up with thousands of stars twinkling at you, almost teasing you to reach out and try to grab them.

Long ago, ancient people would gaze up at night - with the same awe I do - to find a group of stars that fits into a recognizable pattern, something we now know as an ancient constellation.

Ancient Constellations

These ancient people, from Greeks to Babylonians, would find a loose grouping of stars in the same general area of the night sky. They would assign a name to this group of stars that represented heroes, mythical beasts, and gods of their particular culture. Of all the ancient constellations, 48 are still in use today.

The brightest stars were often chosen for an ancient constellation, while the fainter ones in the same area were commonly ignored. Stars of the Southern sky, not visible to the inhabitants of the Northern latitudes, were obviously not included at all, and the reverse is true as well.

But let's face it: such constellations don't actually look like the hero, god, or mythical beast that's drawn on the screen below.

Mythical characters and beasts
Pictures of constellation images

Modern Constellations

To correct for these little hiccups and ambiguities, modern astronomers added another 40 constellations, for a total of 88 officially recognized constellations in the night sky.

Now, each constellation has clearly defined boundaries, and a modern constellation is therefore not a group of stars that fits into a particular pattern, but rather an area of the night sky whose stars in that area belong to only one constellation. A modern constellation will usually include the group of stars of its ancient namesake and some modern constellations may be circumpolar constellations, and this is a constellation, which is near a celestial pole, that never rises or never sets.

Anyway, official modern recognition like this exists to help people communicate and understand things a bit better in astronomy. For example, I can tell you to go to St. Petersburg. But which one? The one in Russia? Or the one in Florida? If I told you the St. Petersburg in Russia, you would know exactly where to go. Similarly, if I told you that the planet Mars is in the constellation Leo, you'd know exactly where to look in the night sky to find Mars!

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