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Celestial News: Defunct constellations of fall

The old constellation of Cerberus, the three-headed Hell dog, is no longer officially recognized, but you can still find his stars attached to Hercules, the strong man. Look for a prominent little quadrilateral of stars just west of the bright star Vega on October evenings.
Jimmy Westlake/Courtesy photo

In 1928, the International Astronomical Union 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 everyone worldwide. When the smoke cleared, 88 star patterns remained. You know many of these by name if not by sight — Orion, Taurus, Scorpius, Ursa Major 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 International Astronomical Union. Let’s take a look at three of these defunct constellations of fall, starting with the late, great constellation of Cerberus, the three-headed Hell dog.



Cerberus was the mythological beast that guarded the gates of Hell to keep the souls of the dead from escaping. He was also one of the monsters killed by the Greek hero Hercules during his Twelve 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 up 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 being clutched in the jaws of Vulpecula, the fox, a constellation that made the cut.

It existed briefly as a distinct constellation, but as of 1928, it was annexed into the constellation of Vulpecula. The brightest star in Vulpecula still bears the name 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 abandoned constellation of fall can be found buzzing around the official constellation of Aries, the ram. It existed briefly during the 17th century as a separate constellation named Apes, the bee, before it was christened Musca Borealis, the northern fly, not to be confused with Musca Australis, the southern fly, which actually made the constellation cut.

Like Cerberus and Anser, the stars of Musca Borealis were absorbed into a larger official constellation, in this case, Aries. Look for a tiny triangle of stars in the northeastern sky, just west of the well-known 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?

For information about astronomy-related events in Steamboat Springs, including public star parties at CMC’s Ball Observatory, contact physics and astronomy instructor Paul McCudden, at pmccudden@coloradomtn.edu or 970-870-4537 or visit the SKY Club web page at http://www.coloradomtn.edu/skyclub.

Jimmy Westlake is adjunct professor of physical sciences at Colorado Mountain College and former Director of the Rollins Planetarium at Young Harris College in Georgia and the St. Charles Parish Library Planetarium, in Luling, Louisiana. His Celestial News column appears monthly in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Check out Jimmy’s astrophotography website at JWestlake.com.


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