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Who Is The Celestial Junk Man?

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Who Is The Celestial Junk Man?

Astronomer Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille (1713-1762)

Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille (1713-1762) is considered by some to be a true astronomy pioneer. Between 1751 and 1753, this modest but hardworking French astronomer was stationed at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa where he catalogued the positions of 9,766 southern stars and 42 nebulae in just 11 months. This catalogue, called Coelum Australe Stelliferum, was published posthumously in 1763.

However, Lacaille is perhaps best remembered today for inventing 14 constellations that he added to the southern sky. Although they are all still officially recognized today by the International Astronomical Union, they are all composed mostly of very faint stars, which formed patterns that generally are dim and have no recognizable shape.

Unlike many of the larger, brighter constellations, which were chiefly based on mythology and legend, Lacaille chose to honor inanimate objects. Two of them are in the September evening sky: Telescopium (the telescope), which is placed below Sagittarius, and Microscopium (the microscope) which is located far below the stars of Capricornus.

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Lacaille’s other constellations include:

  • An Air Pump (Antlia Pneumatica, which has since been shortened simply to Antlia, the pump)
  • Engraving Tools (Caela Sculptoris, shortened to Caelum, the chisel)
  • An Architect’s Compasses (Circinus)
  • A Chemist’s Furnace (Fornax Chemica, shortened to Fornax, the furnace)
  • A Pendulum Clock (Horologium)
  • A Carpenter’s Square (Norma)
  • Hadley’s Octant (Octans Hadleianus, named for the inventor of the reflecting octant, Englishman John Hadley, later shortened to Octans, the octant)
  • A Painter’s Easel (Equuleus Pictoris, shortened to Pictor, the painter)
  • A Mariner’s Compass (Pyxis Nautica, shorted to Pyxis, the compass)
  • An Eyepiece Reticle (Recticulum Rhomboidalis, shortened to Recticulum, the net)
  • A Sculptor’s Workshop (Apparatus Sculptoris, shortened to Sculptor, the sculptor)
  • And lastly, Table Mountain (Mons Mensae, shortened to Mensa) which overlooked Lacaille’s observatory

Is it little wonder then, that when Heber D. Curtis (1872-1942), Director of Allegheny Observatory of the University of Pittsburgh, saw a chart depicting all of Lacaille’s creations, he exclaimed, “It looks like somebody’s attic!”

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