9 Best Constellations That Everyone Should Know (and How to Find Them)

Gazing upwards to the stars has been a favorite pastime of humans since the dawn of civilization.

Many ancient cultures used noticeable grouping of stars to measure the passage of time and as inspiration for stories and art.

Depending on the season and geographic location, different constellations appear in the sky.

If you are a beginner astronomer, here are 9 constellations that are easily located in the night sky.

Best Constellations That Everyone Should Know

Ursa Major

Ursa Major is Latin for “Big Bear” and has ties to the Greek mythology of the nymph Callisto and her son Arcas, who were turned into bears by Zeus and placed in the heavens together. 

Popularly known as the “Big Dipper” Ursa Major is a very recognizable constellation.

Ursa Major is always visible in the Northern Hemisphere.

Best viewed in April, Ursa Major is identified by seven bright stars that form the bear’s backbone.

The ladle of the “Big Dipper” extends as the bear’s neck.

Ursa Minor

Ursa Minor, or “Little Bear” in Latin, and is also known as the “Little Dipper.”

Ursa Minor is famous for containing Polaris, the North Star.

Polaris is the closest star to the Earth’s North Pole, and appears fixed in the sky.

Polaris is the brightest star in Ursa Minor, and looks like the tip of the baby bear’s curved, long tail, which you can then follow to the other star clusters in the constellation.

Ursa Minor is visible year round, but is best viewed in June.

Orion

Orion is one of the largest and identifiable of the constellations.

It is viewable around the world and has been known since ancient times. In Greek myths, Orion represents a great hunter.

To locate Orion, most star gazers look for “Orion’s belt” which is a trio (also known as an asterism) of bright stars.

Two stars north of the belt represent Orion’s shoulders, with two stars south of the belt represent his feet.

Orion is visible year round, but is best viewed in the winter sky.

In some seasons, Orion’s hunting bow can be discerned as pointing to the nearby Taurus constellation.

The Northern Cross/Cygnus

Cygnus is known in Latin as “The Swan” and contains The Northern Cross asterism.

A large constellation that occupies over 800 square miles of sky, Cygnus contains the star Deneb, which is the 19th brightest star in the sky.

Deneb represents the swan’s tail.

From there, the tip of the beak and outstretched wings extend from the Northern Cross asterism in the center.

Cygnus is best viewed in September and is found within the Milky Way band. 

Canis Major

Canis Major, Latin for “Greater Dog,” is said to represent Orion’s larger hunting dog.

Canis Major is also notable because it contains the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, also known as “the Dog Star.”

The constellation contains many bright stars, including Sirius the brightest and Adhara, the second brightest star in the sky.

Canis Major resembles a stick figure, with Sirius at the top and Adhara at the bottom.

This constellation is most visible in the night sky during the late “dog days” of the hot summer season. 

Gemini

The Gemini constellation is one of the Zodiac constellations.

Known as “the Twins,” Gemini contains “twin” stars Castor and Pollux.

These bright stars are meant to represent the heads of Castor and Pollux, who are known from Greek mythology as the twin sons of Leda.

While Castor and Pollux are called twin stars, the stars differ in color and luminosity.

Gemini is prominent in the winter season (December through January) in the Northern Hemisphere.

Locate Gemini by finding Castor and Pollux east of Orion’s Belt.

Scorpius

Scorpius is an ancient constellation that is found in the Southern celestial sky.

Scorpius is associated with scorpions in both the Babylonian and Greek traditions.

Some other traditions, like Indigenous Hawaiians, maintain that Scorpius resembles a large fish hook.

Scorpius is located on the edge of the Milky Way.

Because of its proximity to the Milky Way, Scorpius is home to many deep space objects and star clusters.

Scorpius’ largest star, Antares, represents the scorpion’s heart and is the easiest star to locate due to its distinctive reddish hue.

Left of Antares, a long line of stars curves to the side, creating the characteristic tail/hook shape.

Taurus

Taurus is a large and prominent fixture in the winter sky, best viewed November to January.

Taurus is one of the oldest recognized constellations and has been associated with the bull for centauries.

Aldebaran, Taurus’ largest star, is the 14th brightest star in the sky and forms the eye of Taurus’ bull.

To locate Taurus, first find the Orion’s belt asterism and look to the northeast.

The V-shaped horns of the bull borders Orion and Aries.

Leo

Leo was one of the earliest constellations to be recognized and recorded, evidence suggests as early as 4000 BCE.

Leo is Latin for “Lion” and is represented by a lion in many myths, including the Greek myth of the Nemean Lion that was killed by the hero Heracles.

To find the Leo constellation, look for a cluster of bright stars.

Leo is an especially luminous constellation, featuring a triplet of galaxies known as the “Leo Triplet.”

Four stars in this constellation have bright magnitudes.

Regulus, Leo’s largest star, has a magnitude of 1.34.

Leo can also be located in relation to the Big Dipper by following the “pointer stars.”

The Leo constellation is most visible in April. 

Wrap Up

When trying to locate constellations in the night sky, it can be difficult to know where to begin.

Starting with well-known and distinctive constellations, such as Ursa Major/Minor and Orion, can be helpful in getting oriented to the night sky in your geographic location.

Once a particular constellation is familiar, “pointer stars” can help star gazers identify neighboring constellations.

Bright sequences of stars called asterisms (like Orion’s belt), as well as individual stars like Sirius and Polaris, provide excellent points of references in the sky when looking for constellations. 

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