Many people are amazed by the stars, even those who live in big cities and rarely see the night sky. However, it can sometimes be hard to figure out which set of stars you’re actually looking at. While they all appear during different times of the year, some constellations are easier to find than others. Here are seven constellations that just about everyone can find.
Before the seven constellations, here are some terms that will be used and what they mean! Messier objects is a blanket statement that refers to deep-sky objects that were cataloged by French astronomer Charles Messier in the 18th century. Another way to categorize them is with the broad terms nebulae, star clusters, or galaxies. An asterism is a prominent group of stars that are popular and have a name but are smaller than a constellation.
1. Ursa Major (also known as the Big Dipper and the Great Bear)
Ursa Major is the third largest constellation in the sky, and it’s the largest constellation in the northern sky. The brightest stars in it form the Big Dipper asterism, which is one of the most recognizable shapes in the night sky. This constellation dates back to ancient times, and it has references in Homer and the Bible. The most notable story associated with Ursa Major is that of Callisto the nymph.
She promised her chastity to the goddess Artemis, but Zeus fell in love when he saw her. They had a son and named him Arcas, and angered by his infidelity, Zeus’s wife Hera turned Callisto into a bear. Arcas came across his mother as a bear in the woods one day, didn’t recognize her, and drew his sword. Zeus intervened by sending a whirlwind that carried them both into the sky.
In another story of note, Ursa Major is Adrasteia, a nymph who took care of Zeus when he was a boy on the island of Crete. Zeus’s father, Cronus, was told that one of his children would grow up to overthrow him. Because of this prophecy, Cronus swallowed all of his children. Zeus’s mother, Rhea, snuck Zeus away to Crete, where he would grow up and eventually fulfill the prophecy.
In more recent history, the Big Dipper played a key role in the Underground Railroad. Because it’s easy to find and points to the North Star, slaves used it to flee their captivity and find their way north. There are so many different stories related to Ursa Major, but these are the most popular.
Ursa Major is the third largest constellation in the sky, covering an area of 1280 square degrees. It contains 13 Messier objects: Messier 40, Messier 81, Messier 82, Messier 97, Messier 101, Messier 108, and Messier 109.
It also has 22 stars that are formally named by the International Astronomical Union: Alcor, Alioth, Alkaid, Alkaphrah, Alula Australis, Alula Borealis, Aniara, Chalawan, Dombay, Dubhe, Intercrus, Liesma, Megrez, Merak, Mizar, Muscida, Násti, Phecda, Taiyangshou, Talitha, Tania Australis, and Tania Borealis. 13 of its stars have known planets. The best month to view Ursa Major is in April.
2. Ursa Minor (also known as the Little Dipper and the Little Bear)
This constellation can be very easy to find because it holds the asterism known as the Little Dipper. It is also noteworthy because it marks the location of the north celestial pole, as it’s home to Polaris, also known as the North Star. Many hiking and camping enthusiasts learn how to find the North Star because it will always point you towards true north. It’s the 56th constellation in size, and it occupies an area of 256 square degrees.
There are two myths commonly associated with Ursa Minor. One myth is that it represents the nymph Ida, who took care of Zeus with Adrasteia when he was young on the island of Crete. Zeus’s mother placed him on the island when his father ate his other siblings because there was a prophecy saying that one of his children would overthrow him one day. Zeus grew up to do that, and he freed his siblings as well.
The other myth is that the constellation represents Arcas, son of Zeus and the nymph Callisto. Zeus’s wife, Hera, turned Callisto into a bear after hearing that Zeus had betrayed her, and when Arcas came across his mother in the woods, he raised his sword to kill her because he didn’t recognize her. Zeus placed them both in the sky to prevent Arcas from killing his mother. However, Arcas is also associated with a constellation named Bootes.
Ursa Minor has five named stars, which are Baekdu, Kochab, Pherkad, Polaris, and Yildun. It has no Messier objects and only one of its stars has a known planet. The Ursids is the only meteor shower associated with this constellation. The best time to view Ursa Minor is in June.
3. Orion (also known as the Hunter)
This constellation is named after the Greek hunter, Orion. Orion was the son of Poseidon and was said to be very handsome. There are several myths surrounding him, but the most common is that he fell in love with the Pleiades, also known as the seven sisters. He began to pursue them, and Zeus placed them all in the sky.
Orion is one of the most well-known constellations, and it lies on the celestial equator. This constellation contains two of the ten brightest stars in the sky: Rigel and Betelgeuse. There are eight other formally named stars in this constellation, and they’re called Alnilam, Alnitak, Bellatrix, Hatysa, Meissa, Mintaka, Saiph, and Tabit. It’s located in the northern hemisphere and can be seen the best in January.
Orion has three Messier objects: Messier 42, Messier 43, and Messier 78. Seven of its stars have known planets, and there are two meteor showers associated with Orion. There are the Chi Orionids and the Orionids; the latter can be seen during its peak every year around October 21.
4. Cygnus (also known as the Swan and the Northern Cross)
This is the 16th largest constellation in the sky and can be seen in the northern hemisphere. While Cygnus means “swan” in Latin, this constellation is also called the Northern Cross. It’s best seen during the month of September. Cygnus has a few associated myths.
One myth is that Zeus transformed himself into a swan and impregnated the Spartan Queen Leda, who then gave birth to two sets of twins. Her twins by Zeus were immortal and named Pollux and Helen, and the twins she had by her husband King Tyndareus were mortal and named Castor and Clytemnestra. Castor and Pollux also represent the zodiac constellation Gemini.
The other myth is that after Orpheus was killed, he was transformed into a swan by the gods and placed next to his lyre. The other myths involve many people named Cycnus who were known in Greek mythology. The most notable one is about friends Cycnus and Phaeton, who chased each other across the sky and fell back to the earth when they got too close to the sun.
Cygnus contains six formally named stars, which are Albireo, Aljanah, Azelfafage, Deneb, Fawaris, and Sadr. However, the constellation actually contains ten stars, so four are unnamed. There are two meteor showers associated with the constellation: the October Cygnids and the Kappa Cygnids. The constellation also has ten stars with known planets and two Messier objects, Messier 29 and Messier 39.
5. Lyra (also known as the Lyre)
This constellation is named after a musical instrument called a lyre, which had strings and was used in antiquity and later times. It’s associated with the Greek musician and poet Orpheus, and it was first cataloged by Claudius Ptolemy in the second century. However, Ptolemy believed that Lyra had ten stars as opposed to the six it’s identified to have today.
Lyra belongs to the Hercules family of constellations and can be found in the northern sky. The brightest star in Lyra is called Vega, which is also the fifth brightest star in the sky. The constellation has six formally named stars, which are Aladfar, Sheliak, Sulafat, Vega, Xihe, and Chasoň. These names are approved by the International Astronomical Union.
Lyra holds two Messier objects – Messier 56 and Messier 57 – and has nine stars with known planets. Three meteor showers are associated with this constellation, and they are the Lyrids, the June Lyrids, and the Alpha Lyrids. The Lyrids peak around April 21-22 every year. This constellation is best viewed in August.
6. Canis Major (also known as the Greater Dog)
Also known as the “greater dog” in Latin, this constellation represents the famed Greek dog Laelaps. There aren’t many origin stories, but the main theme throughout them is that Laelaps was so fast that Zeus elevated him into the skies. Laelaps has also been referred to as one of Orion’s hunting dogs, trailing behind him in the night sky. The dog has also been said to chase the rabbit, represented by Lepus.
Canis Major is noteworthy because it contains Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. The constellation looks like a stick figure with Sirius as its head and Adhara, another bright star, at its opposite end. Canis Major is made up of ten formally named stars, all of which are named by the International Astronomical Union. The stars are Adhara, Aludra, Amadioha, Atakoraka, Furud, Mirzam, Muliphein, Sirius, Unurgunite, and Wezen.
The constellation sits in the southern sky, and it is one of the first 48 Greek constellations cataloged by Claudius Ptolemy in the second century. This constellation can be seen from the southern hemisphere, and the best month to view it is February. There aren’t any meteor showers associated with this constellation.
This is the largest constellation in the northern sky, and it is named after a queen in Greek mythology. According to the tale, Cassiopeia was a vain and boastful queen who claimed her beauty was greater than that of sea nymphs. Because of her insult, she was condemned to the sky as a punishment. She is also the mother of Princess Andromeda and the wife of King Cepheus, who both have constellations.
The constellation forms the shape of a “W” with eight bright stars, which are formally named Achird, Caph, Castula, Fulu, Nushagak, Ruchbah, Schedar, and Segin by the International Astronomical Union. Cassiopeia is one of the first constellations recognized by children because of its easy-to-find nature. It can be seen the best in the northern hemisphere during November.
Three of Cassiopeia’s stars have known planets, and it contains two Messier objects. The brightest star in the constellation is Schedar. It’s the 25th largest constellation in the night sky, and the Perseid meteor shower is commonly associated with it.
There are many more constellations, but the zodiac constellations are very popular because astrology is growing. But first things first, what are the zodiac constellations? They are a group of constellations that lie on the ecliptic, also known as the path of the sun. They were used in ancient times to determine what time of year it was.
There are 12 zodiac constellations: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpius, Sagittarius, Capricornus, Aquarius, and Pisces. Constellations Ophiuchus and Cetus also lie in the path of the sun, but they aren’t considered part of the zodiac family. Ophiuchus belongs to the Hercules family, and Cetus belongs to the Perseus family.
Pisces, Aries, Gemini, Taurus, Cancer, and Leo are known as the northern zodiac constellations and are located in the eastern celestial hemisphere. Virgo, Libra, Scorpius, Sagittarius, Capricornus, and Aquarius are known as the southern zodiac constellations and are located in this western celestial hemisphere.
The largest of the 12 zodiac constellations is Virgo, covering 1294.43 square degrees of the southern sky. Virgo is associated with the Greek goddess of justice, Dike. She saw that the humans weren’t obeying the gods like they used to and gave a speech to warn them. They didn’t listen to her, so she fled to the heavens. The best time to see Virgo is between May and June. Those born between August 23 and September 22 are considered Virgos.
The second-largest zodiac constellation is Aquarius, which spreads over 979.85 square degrees. Aquarius also represents Ganymede, who was the cup bearer to the gods in Greek mythology. The best time to view Aquarius is between October and November. However, its corresponding sign of the same name is categorized as people born between January 20 and February 18.
Leo is the third largest at 946.96 square degrees, and it represents the Nemean lion that Hercules killed as a part of his 12 labors. It’s associated with the Leo sign, which is people who were born between July 23 and August 22. The best time to view Leo is in April.
Pisces covers 889.417 square degrees, making it the fourth largest. The myth commonly associated with Pisces is Roman. It says that Venus and Cupid tied themselves together and transformed into a fish to escape a monster named Typhon. The astrology sign Pisces is people born between February 19 and March 20. You can see Pisces between November and December.
Sagittarius is the fifth largest, spreading across 867.43 square degrees. In Greek mythology, it represents a centaur who is shooting an arrow at the heart of the neighboring constellation Scorpius. The best month to view Sagittarius is September; however, people who have the Sagittarius astrological sign are born between November 22 and December 21.
Taurus is commonly associated with the myth that says Zeus transformed himself into a bull to charm and kidnap Europa, the daughter of the Phoenician King Agenor. Taurus stretches over 797.25 square degrees and is best seen in January. People with the astrological sign Taurus are born between April 20 and May 20.
Libra is 538.05 square degrees and can best be seen during July. Ancient Greeks called the Libra constellation Chelae because they thought of it as part of the Scorpius constellation. Chelae mean claws, so they considered Libra to be the scorpion’s claws. People who have the Libra astrology sign are born between September 23 and October 22.
Gemini can be seen the best during February, and it covers 513.7 square degrees. In Greek legend, Castor and Pollux were children of the Spartan Queen Leda. Only Pollux was immortal because he was the one of Zeus, and when Castor died in a battle, Pollux asked his father to make his brother immortal as well. Zeus placed them both in the sky together. The Gemini astrological sign is for people who were born between May 21 and June 20.
Cancer covers 505.87 square degrees, and it means “crab” in Latin. Those with the Cancer sign are born between June 21 and July 22. However, the best time to view Cancer is in March. In Greek mythology, Hera sent the crab to distract Hercules while he was fighting the Hydra to complete his 12 labors. Hercules was so mad that he kicked it to the stars.
Scorpius corresponds to an astrology sign called Scorpio, which refers to people born between October 23 and November 21. It covers an area of 496.78 square degrees and can be seen the best in August. It’s associated with the story of Orion and represents the scorpion that killed Orion.
Aries is most visible in the month of December, but you’ll have to look really hard because it only covers an area of 441.39 square degrees. In Greek mythology, Aries is identified with the golden ram that rescued Phrixus and took him to Colchis, where he sacrificed the ram to the gods. Those with the Aries sign are born between March 21 and April 19.
Capricornus is the smallest of the zodiac constellations; it only covers 413.95 square degrees. The Greeks associated the constellation with the forest deity Pan, who had the legs and horns of a goat. Zeus placed him in the sky to show his gratitude towards Pan. Capricornus can be seen the best in October. The astrological sign that goes with the constellation is called Capricorn and refers to people who are born between December 22 and January 19.