Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Orion

As first appeared in the April 2012 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Image generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

Much can be said about the old hunter Orion. To Central New York observers, it had (until very recently) been the case that Orion made his way across the Night Sky during the coldest and least hospitable (to most nighttime observers) months of the year. Conditions would keep observers in hiding from him (some of the best CNY observers I know would risk surgical strikes on the Orion Nebula with their fastest to set-up and tear-down equipment). The abbreviated winter of 2011/2012 and reasonably early start of the SAS observing season have provided us with excellent opportunities in the past few months to make Orion The Hunter now the hunted. The mid-April observing session will be the last “official” opportunity to observe Orion before he disappears behind the Western horizon until the most nocturnal of us can next see him in our Eastern sky before sunrise in late August. I then take this opportunity to discuss Orion, one many CNY/SAS members may know the best by sight but may know the least by observing attention.

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Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Cetus

As first appeared in the October 2010 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

There is a region of the Night Sky that is dominated by aquatic creatures. Alternately, if we consider empty space as its own kind of ocean, there are regions where the stars of the Aquatic Constellations appear to undulate at geologic time scales, making the current arrangement of stars effectively motionless to our eyes and those of many generations to come.

Within this Water Region are the Constellations (as listed at wikipedia) Aquarius, Capricornus, Cetus, Delphinus, Eridanus, Hydra, Pisces, and Piscis Austrinus. If we think in terms of seasonal change, this does seem like an oddity of planning. Who would place the Aquatic Constellations in the Night Sky during the late fall and winter, when the temperature in some parts of the Northern Hemisphere (such as at Darling Hill Observatory) might as well be that of interstellar space? Where are the polar bear and penguin Constellations?

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Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Pisces

As first appeared in the August 2010 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

Those who’ve ever been told that “there are more fish in the sea…” should be relieved that we only cast our visual nets to the heavens for stars and galaxies, as this most important of animals throughout history is only represented in the Northern Hemisphere by one pair of gilled swimmers tied at the tails.

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Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Aquarius

As first appeared in the October 2009 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

Of all of the Constellations that have taken human forms through history, Aquarius the Water Bearer may have the most varied professional background. His career peaked early in human history, with the Babylonians identifying Aquarius as GU.LA, their identifier for the god Ea, Ea derived from the Sumerian god Enki. To put that into perspective, the stars of Aquarius have been recognized as a Constellation since, at the very least, 1200 B.C. (the dates of the oldest known Babylonian star catalogues. As these catalogues borrow heavily from Sumerian mythology, we can only assume his actual origins step significantly further back, although records are difficult to come by). His demotion to water bearer comes with his adoption by the Greeks and his inclusion into their mythology, with his aquatic status in Greek mythology traveling, albeit likely by land routes, as far East as India. Then, like a leisure suit-clad Pat Boone on his pre-heavy metal reinvention, Aquarius found considerable recent fame as a disco star. When one starts at the top, it would seem that careers, like water, run downhill (although he may not yet be ready for the Chinese Constellation Fenmu, the tomb composed of the upper-left set of his stars). Its importance to several cultures throughout history is of little surprise, as this collection of stars, like the other 11 members of the Zodiac, lies along the ecliptic, the perceived path of the Sun over the course of the year.

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Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Sagittarius

As first appeared in the July 2009 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Image generated with Starry Night Pro 6, www.starrynight.com.

The Constellations, for all of their mythological, mystical, and ceremonial significance throughout human history, are also the bases for much of the scientific discovery (the Zodiac was a calendar long before it was ever used to identify the other kind of dates, and the backdrop of the unchanging Heavens served as the guide against which the motions of the planets were first tracked) that fueled our understanding of the universe before Edwin Hubble first exposed its true vastness by identifying the “Andromeda Nebula” as, in fact, a galaxy far outside of the Milky Way. The constellations have also served in a far more pragmatic capacity throughout human history as seasonal sign posts, simply marking times and locations for those on land and sea. Perhaps the most famous example of this in American History is the use of the Big Dipper as the marker by freed slaves traveling North along the Underground Railroad. The song “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd” is not simply a series of verses, but is instead a set of instructions, with the “Drinkin’ Gourd” being the Big Dipper, the most easily recognizable asterism in the Northern Hemisphere (amateur astronomer or not) and pointer (by drawing an arrow from Merak to Dubhe) to the North Star Polaris, itself the most famous star of the Little Dipper (also known as Ursa Minor), an otherwise somewhat unimpressive constellation (certainly not as prominent in the North as the Big Dipper or the Cassiopeia “W” and, therefore, not as useful a sign post).

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