17,500 Years In The Making – A Small Contribution To The 3rd Edition Of “Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography”

Above: One of my all-time favorite images – a mural within the Lascaux Caves, possibly depicting three (now) prominent asterisms in the nighttime skies of winter.

I had been forwarded along a link from the now-defunct spacetoday.org site back in ’08 or ’09 about a possibly astronomical origin to one particular wall painting within the Lascaux Caves in southwestern France. Someone, either in an expedition or with photos from the documentation, must have had some amateur astronomy background (because most professional astronomers only enter caves when they’re obtaining data) and noticed that the groupings of stars on either side of one connect-the-dots now-extinct auroch (note the timing here – the bull is, astronomically-speaking, a later invention) had the right placement – and nearly the right counts – to maybe, kinda, sorta, possibly be as if someone had drawn the Orion Belt stars (and their collective +1) and a 25x zoom of our second-closest open cluster – the Pleiades (M45) – on either side of a cluster of black dots on an auroch’s head that could represent our closest open cluster – the Hyades.

This type of ancient astronomy history sticks *hard* in my brain, leading to the usual scouring of information online for other reports, images, refutations, etc. This then lead to my including the story way back in a November, 2009 constellation-of-the-month article for the SAS’s Astronomical Chronicle and, with clarifying image, in the December 2016 article of the short-lived Upstate New York Stargazing series.

For someone wanting the unmodified image from the mural, there remains a high-res download available from baerchen3.wp.com.

It should come as no surprise that our ancestors would want to take the most mystical part of their day – the night – inside with them. There is no shortage of civilizations combining small clusters of stars in the sky with fantastical stories (see: the Northern Constellations), and seeing patterns in otherwise random visuals has probably been a solid feature in our brains far longer than any crafted image we’re likely to find buried in any ancient community (see: Pareidolia).

Above: A screencap of the relevant image and associated star chart from “Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography.” Click for a larger view.

If, in fact, this mural was intended to represent the arrangement of what we know as Orion’s Belt, what we know as Taurus the Bull, and what we now call the Pleiades, it raises a host of questions. Is there somehow a direct, herd-migratory line from this cave painting to the walls of Babylon and into early western mythology? Was there a single painter? Was the head or were the stars painted first? If more than one person did it, same question – did someone add the stars to a head, or add the head to the stars? If we looked hard enough on either side of the current belt in the nighttime sky, would we see remnants of a far distant supernova in the background that might have appeared to the cave dwellers as a new, bright fourth star? Alternatively, how much trouble did Ukleois (remember, he’s French) get into by adding the fourth star to the Belt? Did the painter, intending to remove the fourth star after admonishing Ukle-çois for his vandalism, die in a violent way during the morning hunt for breakfast, leaving the fourth star there for all time? Is the right-most or the left-most fourth star the wrong one? Did anyone take fingerprints of these two stars to see which was different from the middle two to know which was the unwanted addition? Was the painting a deep thought of artistic expression by Jean-Ukle that should be deeply read into as a marker of Paleolithic human endeavor, or was it a particularly miserable rainy Tuesday night and Jean-Ukle was simply lamenting not being able to enjoy a bucolic moonlight stroll by spending the evening instead scribbling on a flat piece of cave while getting mildly blotto from the carbon monoxide?

We may never have the answers to these questions.

In the meantime, I have ended up contributing to the astronomical literature in the tiniest of ways to this earliest of anti-memes (because it did not come to you – you had to go to it) in the newly printed 3rd Edition of Nick Kanas’ excellent (e)book “Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography,“ available at amazon and wherever fine Springer Praxis books are sold.

He’s a fellow amateur astronomer, so I liked him already. Additionally (from the amazon bio)…

Dr. Nick Kanas is an Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, where he directed the group therapy training program and wrote a book entitled Group Therapy for Schizophrenic Patients. For over 20 years, he conducted research in group therapy, and for over 15 years after that he was the Principal Investigator of NASA-funded psychological research on astronauts and cosmonauts. In 1999, Dr. Kanas received the Aerospace Medical Association Raymond F. Longacre Award for Outstanding Accomplishment in the Psychological and Psychiatric Aspects of Aerospace Medicine. In 2008, he received the International Academy of Astronautics Life Science Award. He has over 230 scientific publications.

Dr. Kanas is the coauthor of Space Psychology and Psychiatry (now in its 2nd edition), which won the 2004 International Academy of Astronautics Life Science Book Award. In 2015, he authored Humans in Space: The Psychological Hurdles, which won the 2016 International Academy of Astronautics Life Science Book Award. 

Dr. Kanas has been an amateur astronomer for over 50 years. He has collected antiquarian celestial maps for over 30 years and has given talks on the history of celestial cartography to amateur and professional groups.  He is the author of Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography (now in its 2nd edition), and Solar System Maps: From Antiquity to the Space Age. An avid science fiction reader, Dr. Kanas has given talks and participated on panels at numerous World Science Fiction Conventions. He has published articles for Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine and won the Analog AnLab 2015 readers’ poll award for Best Fact Article of the year. He has published three science fiction novels for the Springer Science and Fiction series: The New Martians, The Protos Mandate, and The Caloris Network. Except for his group therapy book, all of his books are published by Springer.

Check his website (nickkanas.com), follow him on twitter (@nick_kanas), give a listen to an interview on The Space Show (and subscribe and support it, as it is excellent), and go buy a copy of the book.

Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Lyra

As first appeared in the July 2012 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle.


Image generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

“The muse is upon me… bring me a small lyre!” – Caesar (via Dom DeLuise)

I have come to the conclusion that the constellation Lyra is my favorite, as it has all of the qualities one looks for in a celestial marker for a student of astronomy history, an amateur astronomer, and a part-time musician (well, drummer). Within its defined borders reside a famed double-double star system, a planetary nebula, a small globular cluster, at least one reasonable galaxy, one of the brightest stars in our night sky, a near-perfect parallelogram (if these were brighter stars, they would rival the Belt of Orion in geometric significance to terrestrial observers), one corner of the largest asterism in the night sky (the so-named Summer Triangle), and a host of other stars and dimmer objects (including even a few comets right now). This great variety of objects all lie in a small piece of property just off the band of the Milky Way and, during the summer, they are all ideally suited to near-zenith or at-zenith observing.

For our overture, we begin with the history of this mythic instrument. Lyra has most oft been associated with the famed musician of olde Orpheus, where Orpheus’ lyre was disposed of in a river not long after Orpheus himself was disposed of by maenads despite Orpheus giving the performance of his life (or for his life as the case may have been, as his playing reportedly kept rocks and sticks at distance, requiring the maenads to forego accouterments and pluck Orpheus apart with their own hands). Zeus, with his ever-present eye for collector’s items, ordered the lyre placed in the heavens along with the eagle that recovered it (and some old drawings of the constellation still include a bird of some kind in the rendering).

The show continues with the frame of the lyre itself, rendered in the opening image as a parallelogram topped by a “T.” When I see the constellation, I don’t see the “T” as much as I see an additional triangle composed of Vega, a Lyr (a double-star that connects the triangle to the parallelogram), and 1a/2a Lyr (far left of the image above, connected by the red line). Now then, 1a/2a Lyr is a sight to behold in a telescope, as it is not one star, but instead a pair of binaries, meaning four stars total that resolve nicely under reasonable magnification (it is reported that, under ideal conditions, the two pairs themselves can be split naked eye). This famed “double-double” star is shown below in an image from the Harrison Telescopes website.

Vega is the fifth brightest star in the Night Sky (making it the sixth brightest star in our sky) and is the second star to appear during the summer months after Arcturus. During June and July, Vega first appears high in the North-Eastern Sky and is obvious to anyone waiting at Darling Hill for their eyes to adjust after sunset. This makes Vega an easy marker for anyone learning the Summer constellations, which then makes Lyra an easy constellation to get under one’s belt at the same time. The parallelogram (where one might imagine the plucked strings of the lyre to be) is oriented nearly North-South and runs along the neck of Cygnus the Swan, a Constellation embedded well into the river of stars that make up the Milky Way.

With the constellation of Lyra identified from its two prominent geometric themes, the search for the subtle tones in this constellation can continue. After M13 in Hercules and the famous M31, the object I learned to identify from the relative positions of stars was M57, the Ring Nebula. M57 sits like a tuning knob at the base of Lyra, almost centrally located between the binary star Sheliak and Sulafat. While far from the brightest object in the night sky, the Ring jumps out immediately even under low-power binoculars as something clearly not a pinpoint of light. New scope owners looking to find anything(!) in their scope are well-advised to consider M57 as a target for low-magnification observing, as the appearance of Sheliak and Sulafat in an eyepiece help to set bright boundary conditions between which to scan for the nebulous ring. On ideally clear and steady nights, the central star of the Ring is visible, although this can be a heroic undertaking for even seasoned pros. A comparison of what Hubble sees and what you’ll likely see is provided on the previous page.

Containing the Ring Nebula would be enough for any constellation to be noteworthy to an amateur astronomer, but Lyra is famous as being a host to yet another Messier object in the form of M56, captured above-right by Stu Forster in July of 2010. This small globular cluster has been tagged at 13.7 billion years of age and can be found most easily by drawing a straight line between Sulafat and Alberio (the head of Cygnus the swan) and scanning the midpoint with larger-aperture binoculars or a small telescope.

For those listening most intently to the orchestrations of this constellation, the irregular galaxy NGC 6745 is just visible in medium-sized telescopes (shown above from Hubble). NGC 6745 is decidedly less J. S. Bach and decidedly more John Cage, as 6745 is actually three galaxies in the process of a violent dance. Like a famous Big Band moving through a town of jazz combos, the largest galaxy is pulling stars from the two smaller galaxies, populating itself at the expense of the disrupted musicians.

There are even themes implied but not heard that enhance the complexities of Lyra. To date, over 13 exoplanets have been discovered in Lyra, at least three of which are attributed to the position of the Kepler Mission observing envelop just beyond Cygnus (see the image above, which shows Kepler frames just to the edge of Lyra).

– Happy Hunting, Damian

Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Camelopardalis

As first appeared in the June 2012 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle.


Image generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

We continue our presentation of CNY circumpolar constellations with a relative newcomer to the great list of 88 constellations (in Western Culture, anyway). Camelopardalis the Giraffe is lucky to be identified as a constellation at all, as neither the Greeks nor the Romans saw this part of the sky as interesting enough to, dare I say, stick their necks out and define the stars here as anything of importance. Its Western history dates to approximately 1612, when the famed Dutch astronomer and cartographer Petrus Plancius (who also provided us with Monoceros, another recent constellation in the Northern Hemisphere) grouped the stars with the name Camelopardalis which, loosely translated, breaks down into “camel” and “leopard,” the combinations of “long neck” and “spots” being a reasonable first approximation to the features of an animal most of Europe had likely never seen at the time. The Chinese and Indian astronomers, on the other hand, were far more meticulous in their use and definition of stars in the Night Sky and the brighter stars in Camelopardalis are all defined in one asterism or another. The positions are obviously the same, but the history and mythology of the stars in Camelopardalis are markedly different.

Referring back to the main image in my first article on circumpolar constellations (Ursa Minor, Jan/Feb/Mar 2012, above), that vast majority of Camelopardalis lies above the Northern Horizon, with its head region tightly packed between the boundaries of Draco and Ursa Minor. I’ve seen several stick figure representations of Camelopardalis that attempt to depict only the legs (from the brightest stars in the constellation), only the legs and torso (by cutting Camelopardalis off at the knees and connecting these two starts to make a body), only the legs and half the neck (using bright stars again), the legs and full neck (getting a head in there as well), and the full-on head-neck-torso-short-leg variation that looks most like a giraffe but, likely, deviates most from classical definitions. The correct line drawing for you is, of course, the one that helps you identify the constellation easiest.

During the June mid-evenings, Camelopardalis is oriented with its feet standing firmly on the Northern Horizon (perhaps with its legs obscured behind tall trees that serve as celestial underbrush during our observing sessions). With no star brighter than 4th magnitude and most in the 4th to 5th range, one does have to work a bit harder than usual to mark out the legs and torso of Camelopardalis from Darling Hill, as the electromagnetic diaspora emanating from Syracuse consumes an ever-increasing expanse of the Northern Sky (a solution, then, is to simply observe from somewhere comfortably North of Syracuse!). As you check for the neck, consider the head of Camelopardalis reaching for the bowl of the Big Dipper. The brightest star near where the head would be, the appropriately named “HIP47193,” will sit just to the left of Polaris for your early-night June observing.

Neither the Greeks, nor the Romans, nor most any Western Culture, nor Charles Messier or his assistant Pierre Méchain found anything of importance to amateur astronomers among the stars we know as Camelopardalis. It took until the 18th century for William Herschel to identify an object worthy of cataloguing in the forms of the sort-of elliptical/sort-of spiral galaxy NGC 2403 (shown above, from Hubble). We now know that this region of the sky contains many interesting, but faint, observables, some of which lie within the Milky Way (such as the planetary nebula NGC 1501 and the open cluster NGC 1502) and many which lie far, far beyond, all likely visible only because they lie away from the galactic plane of the Milky Way (and, therefore, are identifiable because they are in a relatively barren stellar savannah that doesn’t obscure our view). Among these are NGC 2655, IC 342 (shown below in infrared from NASA WISE), and NGC 1569 (all exceptionally tough targets due to Syracuse light pollution).

– Happy Hunting, Damian