Pixel Tracker

Sunday, March 24 , 2019, 7:07 pm | Fair 60º

 
 
 
 
Astronomy

Dennis Mammana: Celestial Menagerie of Constellations Fills Sky This Week

This week you should be able to see a heavenly host of constellations — after dark. Click to view larger
This week you should be able to see a heavenly host of constellations — after dark. (Creators.com illustration)

Look back into history and you’ll find that just about every indigenous culture on Earth developed its own unique set of constellations, and many were passed down to later generations. Modern Western stargazers inherited those created primarily by the ancient Greeks and early European explorers and astronomers.

To produce a more standardized system for worldwide use, in 1922, the International Astronomical Union, or IAU, formally divided the heavens into 88 separate regions of varying shapes and sizes, each a “constellation.” Among these we find represented 29 objects, 42 animals, 16 people and one half-animal/half-human (a centaur).

I think it’s remarkable that after dark during mid-May we can see in our northwestern sky nearly one-fifth of all the animal constellations. But before you frustrate yourself searching for images of lions and tigers and bears, remember that constellations are merely areas of the sky and not celestial pictures.

So with this in mind, let’s head outdoors shortly after dark this week to see if we can locate all eight of these celestial groupings.

Surely, the most famous are the stars of Ursa Major, the great bear. More easily recognized as the Big Dipper, this group now stands high in the northwestern sky after dark.

To its left lies the large constellation of Leo, the lion. And between Leo and Ursa Major lies the much tinier Leo Minor, the little lion. Looks more like an arrow to me.

To the Big Dipper’s right we find Ursa Minor, the little bear, also known as the Little Dipper. The end of its tail (or handle) is marked by Polaris, the North Star. Finding Polaris isn’t difficult. Simply follow to the right the two stars at the end of the Big Dipper’s bowl and they’ll point right toward this star.

And winding its way partly between the big and little bears we see the sinuous constellation of Draco, the dragon, a horrible creature from ancient Greek mythology that guarded a valuable sacred spring.

If you have trouble finding these five constellations, get ready for a real challenge because the remaining three may be even more difficult. This is partly because they’re very faint and obscure and partly because some now lie very low to the horizon.

Directly beneath Ursa Major lies a string of stars known as Lynx, the ... well, uh, lynx. This constellation together with Leo and Leo Minor make up all the cats represented in the heavens.

To the left of Lynx lies Cancer, the crab. Normally one of the faintest constellations in the heavens, its stars will be severely dimmed by its extremely low altitude.

Finally, look to the right of Lynx and you should spot Camelopardalis. This has to be one of the most obscure constellations in all the heavens. It was probably the 16th-century Dutch theologian, cartographer and astronomer Petrus Plancius who conjured this one up, though some believe it might have been named by the German astronomer Jacob Bartsch, who published Plancius’ star maps in a 1624 constellation book.

While this constellation’s name suggests that it represents a camel — and it even kind of looks like one — it’s not. It’s a giraffe!

Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

Support Noozhawk Today!

Our professional journalists work tirelessly to report on local news so you can be more informed and engaged in your community. This quality, local reporting is free for you to read and share, but it's not free to produce.

You count on us to deliver timely, relevant local news, 24/7. Can we count on you to invest in our newsroom and help secure its future?

We provide special member benefits to show how much we appreciate your support.

Email
I would like give...
Great! You're joining as a Red-Tailed Hawk!
  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.