When leading my popular Borrego Night Sky Tours, I frequently encounter stargazers who are frustrated that they cannot easily see the constellations. So many have been led to believe that ancient sky watchers somehow saw lavish pictures in the sky, and they wonder, “Why can’t I?”
My answer is simple: Because there are none, only stars.
In fact, a colleague used to say that constellations look no more like their namesakes than the George Washington Bridge looks like the father of our country.
And it’s true. The ancients saw the same stars as we, and they simply used them to represent animals, objects and people in their storytelling.
Stare at the stars long enough, however, and you will begin to find recognizable patterns, maybe not the bears and flying horses and fishes depicted in the constellation maps but your own patterns. These we call “asterisms” — star figures that actually look like something familiar.
Some of my favorites to spot are geometrical figures and letters of the alphabet. While these aren’t particularly plentiful, there is one that is easily visible on September evenings in the north-northeastern part of the sky. Its name is Cassiopeia.
Cassiopeia is the star grouping known to the ancient Greeks as an Ethiopian queen. She was said to have been so obsessed with her own beauty that, when the gods placed her in the heavens, they put her in the north so she’d revolve about the North Celestial Pole daily and spend half of her time upside down.
The ancient Persians, however, interpreted Cassiopeia’s stars as a kneeling camel, while some in the Inuit culture of Canada and Greenland knew it as Pituaq, a lamp stand.
Some see the stars of this region as the throne on which the queen sits.
Maybe I just don’t have much imagination; to me, Cassiopeia appears simply as a “W.”
But not always. You see, Cassiopeia is one of those constellations that appears as four different figures as it revolves around the North Star during the night — and throughout the year.
Right now, of course, it appears as a tilted “W.” When it’s on its side, it can look like an “E” or even a “3.” And when it’s high above the North Star, it appears as an “M.”
Just above and to its east lies another “W.” It appears almost as a miniature version of Cassiopeia, but it’s actually the northern side of the constellation Lacerta, the lizard. You’ll need a dark, moonless sky to see it, since it contains no bright stars.
Lacerta is one of seven fairly obscure Northern Hemisphere star groupings, created and introduced by the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius. Hevelius created Lacerta to enclose the stars of such a tiny area of the sky that no other constellation would fit. Some think that he may have been inspired by the ancient Chinese, who represented this celestial region as a Flying Serpent.
If you’ve got a good, dark sky this week, you should be able to trace the outline of a lizard. But the five stars on its far left-hand side … well, they seem to form a figure I think of as Cassiopeia Lite!
— 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@example.com and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. The opinions expressed are his own.