Jimmy Westlake: Three defunct star patterns of fall
In 1929, the International Astronomical Union, or the IAU, sat down to weed through the hundreds of constellations that had been invented over the centuries. Their goal was to decide, once and for all, which constellations deserved to become officially sanctioned star patterns, recognized by all of the nations on Earth.
When the smoke cleared, 88 star patterns remained. You know many of these survivors by name if not by sight: Orion the Hunter, Taurus the Bull, Ursa Major the Great Bear and many more.
Have you ever wondered what constellations did not make the cut? The sky is littered with these defunct star patterns, cast into the trash heap of celestial history by the IAU.
Take for example the late, great constellation of Cerberus, the Three-Headed Hell Dog. As Captain William Henry Smyth wrote in 1863,
“To Cerberus, too, a place is given —
His home of old was far from heaven!”
Cerberus was the mythological beast that guarded the gates of Hell and was one of the monsters slain by Hercules during his 12 labors. The four little stars that formed Cerberus were absorbed into the much larger constellation of Hercules, who still holds the beast by the throat up in the heavens. Look for Cerberus high in the western sky near the bright star Vega, the brightest star in our Summer Triangle.
Tucked in under the wing of Cygnus the Swan is another disbarred constellation named Anser, the Goose. Anser was pictured in the sky as being clutched in the jaws of Vulpecula, the Fox. It existed briefly as a distinct constellation, but as of 1929, it has been absorbed into our constellation of Vulpecula.
The brightest star in Vulpecula is still named Anser, an eternal reminder of this goose of a constellation. Look for it overhead, between the bright star Albireo, marking the swan’s head, and the nearby constellation of Sagitta, the Arrow.
A third defunct constellation of fall can be found buzzing around the official constellation of Aries, the Ram. It is Musca Borealis, the Northern Fly, not to be confused with Musca Australis, the Southern Fly, who actually made the constellation cut. Look for a small triangle of stars in the northeastern sky not far from the glittering Pleiades star cluster.
What was the IAU thinking? They spared the constellation of Antlia, the Air Pump, but they axed Musca Borealis, the Northern Fly. Is nothing sacred?
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out Jimmy’s astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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