The Constellations

The constellation Orion is one of the most recognizable in the night sky.
The constellation Orion is one of the most recognizable in the night sky. (Image Courtesy of Sky and Telescope)

What is a Constellation?

In modern astronomy, a constellation is an internationally defined area of the celestial sphere. These areas are grouped around asterisms (which themselves are generally referred to in non-technical language as “constellations”), which are patterns formed by prominent stars within apparent proximity to one another on Earth’s night sky.

The Late Latin term constellātiō can be translated as “set with stars”. The term was first used in astrology, of asterisms that supposedly exerted influence, attested in Ammianus (4th century). In English the term was used from the 14th century, also in astrology, of conjunctions of planets. The modern astronomical sense of “area of the celestial sphere around a specific asterism” dates to the mid 16th century.

Colloquial usage does not distinguish the senses of “asterism” and “area surrounding an asterism”. The modern system of constellations used in astronomy focuses primarily on constellations as grid-like segments of the celestial sphere rather than as patterns, while the term for a star-pattern is asterism. For example, the asterism known as the Big Dipper corresponds to the seven brightest stars of the larger IAU constellation of Ursa Major.

The term circumpolar constellation is used for any constellation that, from a particular latitude on Earth, never sets below the horizon. From the north pole, all constellations north of the celestial equator are circumpolar constellations. In the northern latitudes, the informal term equatorial constellation has sometimes been used for constellations that lie to the south of the circumpolar constellations. Depending on the definition, equatorial constellations can include those that lie entirely between declinations 45° north and 45° south,or those that pass overhead between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. They generally include all constellations that intersect the celestial equator.

What is the Zodiac?

In both astrology and historical astronomy, the zodiac (Greek: ζῳδιακός, zōdiakos) is a circle of twelve 30° divisions of celestial longitude that are centered upon the ecliptic: the apparent path of the Sun across the celestial sphere over the course of the year. The paths of the Moon and visible planets also remain close to the ecliptic, within the belt of the zodiac, which extends 8-9° north or south of the ecliptic, as measured in celestial latitude. Historically, these twelve divisions are called signs. Essentially, the zodiac is a celestial coordinate system, or more specifically an ecliptic coordinate system, which takes the ecliptic as the origin of latitude, and the position of the sun at vernal equinox as the origin of longitude.

The image below depicts the twelve signs of the modern zodiac along the ecliptic.

(Image courtesy of http://kaelouise.com/
Image courtesy of http://kaelouise.com/