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Stargazing: Find your own constellations

February 06, 2012 at 06:56 AM

Gatehouse News Service

Officially, there are 88 recognized constellations. But shapes among the stars are truly unlimited.

Scanning the heavens with a telescope of any size, or even binoculars, you will soon be connecting starts and making lines, arcs, squares, triangles ... cigars, fish and Christmas trees.

You can let your imagination go wild. You can do this with eyes alone, but it may be a bit harder if you already know the official constellations.

Your eyes will tend to connect the stars “the way they are supposed to be.”

After all, what is a constellation, but the product of someone’s active imagination that came into such widespread acceptance, there is no turning back?

Astronomers fiddle with black holes, red shifts, spiral arms, exo-planets and gamma ray bursts, but despite all the cutting edge research, they still know the sky includes a rabbit, a puppy, a giraffe, a couple dippers (a big one for Papa Bear and a little one for Mama Bear) and even a hunter with a penchant for studded accessories (a belt and a sword) that glitter like diamonds.

There were once many more than 88 constellations.

Through the eons and cultures of the world, stars were connected in sundry ways. Charts and celestial gloves became confusing and finally the International Astronomical Union (IAU) said “ENOUGH” and standardized our sky picture book in 1922.

Of these, 48 go back to a catalog known as the Almagest published in the second century A.D. by the Greek astronomer Ptolmey. The remaining constellations were designed in the 17th and 18th centuries by astronomers deciding to “fill in the gaps” between the old groups, which are mostly marked with brighter stars. New constellations were added in the far southern sky as well, once astronomers began earnest sky exploration from well below the equator.

Some of these latter constellations honor modern scientific instruments of the day, such as Telescopium the Telescope and Microscopium the Microscope.

But why stop with 88? Let your imagination go. Star connecting certainly can add to the enjoyment as your explore the Universe. They make excellent memory devices, to help you recall star positions by patterns. In the telescope eyepiece, this is very handy for carefully “star hopping” your way, with the aid of a good star atlas, to some object such as a star cluster or galaxy.

These impromptu “constellations” go by another name: Asterisms. Numerous asterisms are widely recognized in the night sky, making up parts of broader constellations. The most famous is the Big Dipper, an asterism made out of Ursa Major the Big Bear. We also have the “Winter Hexagon,” connecting six of the bright stars ( Capella, Aldebaran, Rigel, Sirius, Procyon and Pollux) of the Northern Hemisphere winter evening sky; the “Great Square” utilizing three stars in Pegasus the Flying Horse and another in Andromeda the Maiden; and the “Summer Triangle” connecting the bright stars Vega, Altair and Deneb.

Some of the asterisms I have found in the telescope include a star pattern looking like a fish with rabbit-ear antennae, a diamond necklace and a cigar.

What have you seen?

While you’re at it, try the moon. With a telescope and an imagination, the jumbled craters and overlapping shades will keep you outside longer than you probably should. The other night I was sure I saw craters assembled in the shape of Mickey Mouse.

Send your notes to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Keep looking up!

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