Southern Hemisphere Constellations and Asterisms

There are a total of 88 constellations in the night sky. Constellations seen in the Southern Hemisphere are some of the same in the north. But a few are unique to ‘down under’. Here, the sky is ‘upside down’ compared to the northern hemisphere and groups of stars display particular patterns of interest because of the orientation.

Southern hemisphere night sky with the Southern Cross and the Milky Way

I’ve mentioned how the Moon appears upside down in the southern hemisphere when I wrote about viewing the Moon.

If you were to travel from northern America to Australia and look up at the night sky you’d be struck by the difference in the stars visible and how they are orientated.

Spotters often identify star patterns, or asterisms, in the night sky more readily than the constellations.

Asterism of the southern hemisphere. The Saucepan in Orion in the Southern Hemisphere compared to the northern is inverted
The Saucepan is an asterism in Orion recognized by Australian stargazers

An asterism is a group of stars appearing in a pattern that’s visible to current-day Earth viewers. It can sit within a single constellation or cross over two or more constellations.

An example is The Seven Sisters that forms a group of bright stars seen by the naked eye. Early stargazers recognized seven, the brightest stars in the star cluster of Pleiades, which modern technology tells us has at least 144 celestial bodies.

The Seven Sisters, an asterism in the Pleiades star cluster

Several Aboriginal Australian tribes had their own cultural story about the Seven Sisters. At least 12 cultural stories exist but the most common name for the star group, going by legend, is Kungarangkulpa.

Observed from central Australia, the Pleiades star group rises above the horizon soon after sunset and keeps a low trajectory above the horizon.

Asterisms Seen in the southern hemisphere

The below images show the patterns and stars that make up some established asterisms seen in the southern hemisphere. A list follows with where to look and the best time of year to see these and more.

The Teapot with the Milk Dipper (yellow lines)

The Teapot is in Sagittarius with the Milk Dipper, which comprises the Teapot’s handle and part of its lid. Winter / Spring is the best time to see these in the southern hemisphere in the constellation of Sagittarius.

The teapot and the milk dipper asterisms shown with Kaus Borealis Kaus Media and Kaus Australis
The Milk Dipper in the Teapot

The Water Jar (yellow lines)

The Water Jar is best seen in spring in the southern hemisphere. It is a Y shaped asterism that is centered on ζ Aquarii within the constellation of Aquarius.

water jar asterism in Aquarius with Sadachbia shown
The Water Jar in Aquarius

The Winter Hexagon

The Winter Hexagon in Orion is best seen in summer in the southern hemisphere.

winter hexagon in Orion, with Sirius, Rigel Hyades Procyon and Pollux shown
The Winter Hexagon in Orion

The Pointers and Southern Cross

The Pointers are the stars Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri (Hadar). They are close to the Southern Cross (in the constellation of Crux). If you have trouble with whether you have the False Cross or the Southern Cross, look for the Pointers. They are the telltale sign of knowing.

the Pointers and the southern cross asterisms
The Pointers and the Southern Cross (Crux)

The two asterisms are used together to find the celestial pole in the south. Extend the main axis of the Southern Cross in a line until it meets an imaginary line starting in the middle of the Pointers. This is the location of the celestial pole. Drop a line to the Earth and you have south on the horizon.

Drawing by Nick Lamb

The False Cross

Sometimes mixed up with the Southern Cross, the False Cross is in the constellation of Carina, the Keel and is best seen in Autumn.

False Cross asterism in Carina with Aspidiske and Markeb shown
The False Cross in Carina

List of asterisms to look for in the southern hemisphere

AsterismWhere to lookBest time
KiteIn BoötesWinter
Milk DipperWithin TeapotWinter/Spring
Teapot In SagittariusWinter/Spring
Great Square of PegasusIn PegasusSpring
Summer TriangleCygnus (for Deneb), Lyra (for Vega) and Aquila (for Altair)Spring
Circlet of PiscesIn PiscesSpring
Water JarY shape bottom of AquariusSpring
Seven SistersPleiades star cluster in TaurusSpring/Summer
Winter HexagonLook for the brightest star, Sirius, at the topSummer
The SaucepanIn OrionSummer
PointersNear the CruxAutumn
SickleIn LeoAutumn
False CrossCarina and VelaAutumn
Big DipperAbove northern horizonAutumn
Southern CrossIn Crux. Look for the PointersAutumn
Source: Astronomy Australia Guide

Constellations best seen in the southern hemisphere

Unless close to the equator, stargazers in the northern hemisphere would have trouble sighting these southern circumpolar constellations. The circumpolar constellations, shown in the table below, circle the southern celestial pole and are said to be visible between latitudes +20° and −90°. 

List of constellations in the southern sky (visible sth of +20º)

ConstellationCommon Name
CarinaThe Keel
CentaurusThe Centaur
CruxSouthern Cross
HydrusWater Serpent (m)
ApusBird of Paradise
VolansFlying Fish
MensaTable Mountain
Thanks to Constellation Guide for the data

Carina contains the 2nd brightest star in the sky, Canopus (Sirius is the brightest — see my star brightness chart).

Carina constellation (The Keel) shown as sitting above the horizon at twilight
The points of interest in the Carina constellation (The Keel). Image by Alexxander.

Centaurus on the other hand is the 9th largest of all constellations and contains Alpha Centauri, the 3rd brightest star in the sky.

The points of interest in the Centaurus constellation (The Centaur). Image by Alexxander.

Dickinson in NightWatch describes how the southern hemisphere contains the best star clusters, globular clusters and nebulas.


Bottom line

Observing the night sky in the southern hemisphere gives a different perspective for stargazers.

Info sources

  1. Nightwatch, a Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe by Terence Dickinson (available at Amazon). This book contains sky charts and has a spring binding and so is practical for use on location.
  2. Astronomy Australia Year Guide to the Night Sky by Wallace, Dawes, and Northfield includes all sky maps and much more information for stargazing down under

I adapted the line images of the asterisms from Sky Guide app.