Radio telecommunications; "constellation" refers to the number of unique symbols a transceiver is capable of producing/interpreting. The constellation is generally a power of two (but not always), and can be easily represented by dots on a 2-dimensional graph.

See also: symbol, spread spectrum, frequency-hopping, direct sequence, Bit Error Rate.

The first extensive list of the constellations as seen from Earth was compiled by Ptolemy around 140 AD. Ptolemy's star catalogue contained only 48 constellations, as much of the sky in the southern hemisphere could not be seen at the time.
The list of constellations now has 88 internationally recognised entries. They are as follows:

Name - Meaning

Andromeda - Daughter of King Cephaus
Antlia - Pump
Apus - Bird of Paradise
Aquarius - Water Carrier
Aquila - Eagle
Aries - Ram
Auriga - Charioteer

Bootes - Herdsman

Caelum - Chisel
Camelopardalis - Giraffe
Cancer - Crab
Canes Venatici - Hunting Dogs
Canis Major - Greater Dog
Canis Minor - Lesser Dog
Capricornus - Goat
Carina - Ship's Keel
Cassiopeia - Mother of Andromeda
Centaurus - Centaur
Cepheus - King of Ethiopia
Cetus - Whale
Chamaeleon - Chameleon
Circinus - Dividers
Columba - Dove
Coma Berenices - Berenice's Hair
Corona Australis - Southern Crown
Corona Borealis - Northern Crown
Corvus - Crow
Crater - Cup
Crux - Southern Cross
Cygnus - Swan

Delphinus - Dolphin
Dorado - Swordfish
Draco - Dragon

Equuleus - Foal
Eridanus - River Eridanus

Fornax - Furnace

Gemini - Twins
Grus - Crane

Hercules - Hercules
Horologium - Clock
Hydra - Water Serpent
Hydrus - Water Snake

Indus - Indian

Lacerta - Lizard
Leo - Lion
Leo Minor - Lion Cub
Lepus - Hare
Libra - Scales
Lupus - Wolf
Lynx - Lynx
Lyra - Lyre

Mensa - Table
Microscopium - Microscope
Monoceros - Unicorn
Musca - Fly

Norma - Rule

Octans - Octant
Ophiuchus - Serpent Holder
Orion - The Hunter

Pavo - Peacock
Pegasus - Winged Horse
Perseus - Son of Zeus
Phoenix - Phoenix
Pictor - Easel
Pisces - Fishes
Piscis Austrinus - Southern Fish
Puppis - Ship's Poop
Pyxis - Ship's Compass

Reticulum - Net

Sagitta - Arrow
Sagittarius - Archer
Scorpius - Scorpion
Sculptor - Sculptor
Scutum - Shield
Serpens - Serpent
Sextans - Sextant

Taurus - Bull
Telescopium - Telescope
Triangulum - Triangle
Triangulum Australe - Southern Triangle
Tucana - Toucan

Ursa Major - Greater Bear, Plough
Ursa Minor - Lesser Bear

Vela - Ship's Sail
Virgo - Virgin
Volans - Flying Fish
Vulpecula - Little Fox
The 88 modern constellations were defined in 1929 by the International Astronomical Union.
The constellation names are defined in a nominative form, for direct reference, a genitive form for naming stars in that constellation, and a standard (three-letter) abbreviation. The constellations are (alphabetical by hemisphere):

Northern Hemisphere:

Southern Hemisphere
Both Hemispheres:
This writeup is released into the public domain by D.G. Roberge.

A constellation is a grouping of celestial objects. Previously all known as "stars", modern telescopy has allowed us to see much more clearly than our naked-eye observing forefathers who first grouped the lights of the heavens and named them. We now know that part of Orion's Belt is, in fact, a stellar nursary, where new stars are forming from a hot cloud of gas. Other fuzzy bright bits in the sky, usually distant galaxies also feature in the constellations.

The constellations, as we know them today, were all named in the northern hemisphere. As a result, many constellations do not make much sense to southern hemisphere residents, as they are upside down. A similar example is the man in the moon, he looks like a rabbit south of the equator!

The first people to name constellations were the Arabs and the Chinese. An example of an Arab name for a stellar body that has endured to today is Betelgeuse (pronounced like the Michael Keaton film), the red giant star in the familiar constellation Orion.

It is the Greeks, however, who made the constellations their own. Much of Greek Mythology is linked to the objects in the sky, though whether they grouped the stars according to their myths or created their myths to explain the star clusters, I could not say.

The earliest astronomers were said to be farmers, who used the stars of the night sky to indicate when to plant their crops. A brief glance at any ancient text (The Bible will do) will show you that the recording of the passage of time was not exactly reliable. Indeed, it was not until the 17th Century that we calculated the length of the year to be 365.2422 days, skipped a few days in October, and adopted our Gregorian Calendar. In those ancient days, the rising of Orion with the setting of the sun was the most reliable indicator that winter would soon be making way for spring.

Satellite constellation

Collaborative configuration of multiple artificial satellites.

Since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, many hundreds of artificial satellites have been put into orbit. Initially they were somewhat crude in both design and operation but, as the possibilities they offered were explored, many new and potential uses were thought of and implemented. Satellites were built for weather observation, military purposes and to relay telecommunications, and the people and Powers That Be alike thought it was Good. Before too long though, many applications ran into a scalability issue.

Individual satellites have their limitations. As soon as one goes over the horizon in relation to its ground station, we have blackout and therefore interrupted service which is incompatible with continuous use such as would be required for reliable global telecommunications. Geostationary satellites partly solved that problem by remaining in the line of sight of their ground station at all times but their field of vision is clearly defined and limited.

At the same time, some applications required images from more parts of the earth than a single satellite can view or depend on imagery from an angle as close to vertical as possible. One can increase the visible swathe of territory by increasing the satellite's altitude but inevitably a compromise is made as regards image quality and resolution. One can clumsily patch together images from different satellites but the process is practically hand-cranked and cannot compare to a system of satellites meant to work as part of the same system. If you look at a weather images from the 1970s you can see the seams between different snapshots and differences in their resolution and shades.

A constellation is a configuration of satellites, supported by one or more ground stations, designed to increase the range or coverage of a satellite system or to allow different types of satellites with varying tasks to work together. Typically these are systems used for meteorology or telecommunications. Satellites are carefully positioned in different orbits and orbital planes in order to obtain the desired level of coverage and redundancy.

In this way, if a geostationary satellite can cover, let's say 30 degrees of longitude, and the goal is coverage of the entire equatorial zone, twelve satellites spaced evenly around the globe will cover the whole earth at the equator but less and less as we move away from it. Sixteen would improve the system by allowing for some overlap and thus improved coverage at the boundaries between the fields of two satellites. Or, one could elevate the constellation's orbit in order for each satellite to "see" a wider area and reduce the number. More territory north and south could be covered by adding satellites in inclined orbits designed to complement each others coverage.

The first constellation to be put into orbit was the Global Positioning System, whose first component, built by Boeing, was launched in 1978, although the system was not declared fully operational until 1993.

A constellation will typically operate by passing data to a ground station which will forward it to another satellite if necessary until it reaches its destination. More high-end constellations work by using the satellites themselves to contact other satellites in the array. When there is a means of sending data to farside satellites by way of relaying traffic through other satellites, a single ground station is sufficient. This system is called crosslinking and was first enabled on the American Milstar II system in 1995.

There are about 25 planned and operational satellite constellations. Some of them are:

  • Globalstar is a telecommunications constellation of 48 satellites plus four spares that are spaced around the globe. They use six different orbital planes and their orbit is inclined at 52° in order to obtain coverage up to 70 degrees of latitude on either side of the equator. Anywhere in that zone, you can expect two to four Globalstar satellites to be overhead at any given time. It's also used for IP traffic.
  • Iridium, one of the largest constellations, is Motorola's troubled offspring and its 66+6 satellites were originally designed for high-reliability telephone communication anywhere in the world but advances in the reliability, availability and equipment used in other mobile telephony systems left it with only the most demanding customers. It was almost deorbited for financial reasons but may become profitable if it becomes part of a global aircraft monitoring system, a use which was proposed in October 2001.
  • Inmarsat is by design a naval communications system and, unlike most others, is primarily geared towards covering oceans rather than land, but does not exclude land areas and will expand to include broadband data traffic. Its eight geostationary satellites and over twenty ground stations are a staple of telecommunications at sea.
  • Cospas-Sarsat, operated by several countries, is a constellation itself made up of two small constellations and is designed to aid search and rescue. Its components are a dual-use mixture of geostationary weather satellites and low-orbit communications satellites. This one demonstrates how existing satellites can be used for another purpose in addition to their intended one.

The mathematics of designing and arranging satellite constellations are considerable and all calculations must be made on a case by case basis as constellations are unlikely to be the same and different applications require wildly varying configurations. Elements such as the locations of ground stations, desired coverage and redundancy, special terrain circumstances, and the amount of available hardware may all have to be taken into consideration. Constellations will also be impacted by the type of satellite used. Communication protocols, security and both ground and orbital software are also important factors as much as they are in standalone satellite systems.

Several software packages have been created to design, increase and maximise the efficiency of a satellite constellation, reduce the number of satellites needed, or allow space for their expansion or interoperability with other constellations. Educated guesses about future changes in available hardware and performance are incorporated but any software of the kind will have to evolve alongside the technlogy it deals with. SATCOS by hot-shot research and technology outfit SAIC promises to deliver the most efficient designs.

There is a free Tcl/Tk based tool for satellite orbit display called SaVi that can simulate satellite constellations like Teledesic and GPS on your desktop and give a decent approximation of the systems' coverage and movement. It won't build on my system but its screenshots look interesting.


Con`stel*la"tion (?), n. [F. constellation, L. constellatio.]


A cluster or group of fixed stars, or dvision of the heavens, designated in most cases by the name of some animal, or of some mythologial personage, within whose imaginary outline, as traced upon the heavens, the group is included.

The constellations seem to have been almost purposely named and delineated to cause as much confusion and inconvenience as possible. Sir J. Herschel.

⇒ In each of the constellations now recognized by astronomers (about 90 in number) the brightest stars, both named and unnamed are designated nearly in the order of brilliancy by the letters of the Greek alphabet; as, α Tauri (Aldebaran) is the first star of Taurus, γ Orionis (Bellatrix) is the third star of Orion.


An assemblage of splendors or excellences.

The constellations of genius had already begun to show itself . . . which was to shed a glory over the meridian and close of Philip's reign. Prescott.


Fortune; fate; destiny.


It is constellation, which causeth all that a man doeth. Gower.


© Webster 1913.

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