Small Constellations

Not all constellations have the magnificence of Orion or Cygnus, or even the interest of Delphinus and Lacerta. The constellations in this article seem to be leftovers – little scraps that didn’t fit in the “real” constellations. Each is visible from Canada, but contains only two or three stars, so the shapes are either straight lines, bent lines or triangles. They’re pretty uninteresting, for the most part, but some are easy to find. Besides, they challenge our understanding of what a constellation is. Since these constellations are all over the sky, I’ll simply describe them in a table.

Common NameLatin nameStars & shapeLocationNotes
Hunting DogsCanes Venaticitwo – a linesouth from Big Dipper’s handleBright double star Cor Caroli named for King Charles I
Little FoxVulpeculatwo – a linebetween Alberio, in Cygnus, and the Arrow (Sagitta)Contains the famous Dumbbell nebula, M27
Little DogCanis Minortwo – a linesouth of GeminiProcyon, the 8th brightest star, is between Sirius (the brightest) and Pollux (the 15th)
Little HorseEquuleusthree – a bent linebetween Pegasus and the DolphinWell, I’ve seen the other ones!
TriangleTriangulumthree – a trianglebetween Andromeda’s southern foot and the RamContains the beautiful, if faint, spiral galaxy M33

Compared to these, unimpressive constellations like the Little Lion (Leo Minor) and Lynx are positively complex, having about half-a-dozen little stars each. (There are many unimaginative, simple constellations in the southern hemisphere, named for scientific and navigational tools used by Europeans in their Age of Discovery – too bad they didn’t ask the native peoples for stories!)

But what is a constellation, really? Who decided what was where, and how is the sky divided up? Of course, the constellations we recognize now have their origins in myths and stories of ancient peoples in Europe, the Middle East and western Asia. Constellations were the storybooks of that time.

It was not until 1930, though, that the constellations were formally delineated by the International Astronomical Union, an act of international cooperation. These boundaries are geometrical, following the east-west lines of Declination and the north-south lines of Right Ascension, so they are easy to describe. The lines to form the actual pictures of many constellations, however, run through the formal boundaries of neighbouring constellations, proving that, even in science, a good story will win out over simple logic.