A constellation is a group of stars that are connected together to form a figure or picture. The term is also traditionally and less formally used to mean any group of stars visibly related to each other, if they are considered as a fixed configuration or pattern in a particular culture.
Some well-known constellations contain striking and familiar patterns of bright stars. Examples are Orion (containing a figure of a hunter), Leo (containing bright stars outlining the form of a lion), Scorpius (a scorpion), and Crux (a cross).
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) divides the sky into 88 official constellations with exact boundaries, so that every direction or place in the sky belongs within one constellation. In the northern celestial hemisphere, these are mostly based upon the constellations of the ancient Greek tradition, passed down through the Middle Ages, and contains the signs of the zodiac. The sun appears to pass through the 12 constellations of the zodiac (plus Ophiuchus) and ancient Greek astronomers believed they had a special significance. All constellation names are Latin proper names or words.
The stars in a constellation or asterism rarely have any astrophysical relationship to each other; they just happen to appear close together in the sky as viewed from Earth and typically lie many light-years apart in space. However, one exception to this is the Ursa Major moving group.
The grouping of stars into constellations is essentially arbitrary, and different cultures have had different constellations, although a few of the more obvious ones tend to recur frequently, e.g., Orion and Scorpius.
Shortened article and images from wikipedia.org. Published under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.