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The Forgotten Winter Constellations 

The Forgotten Winter Constellations 

With the Holiday season behind us, it’s time for us to take down all those flashy ornaments and store them away for another year.  For most people, this is a task that probably takes no more than a few hours, but in some cases, it might be a project that may take a few days (or even more).

As a kid growing up in the Bronx, I can vividly remember one particular house in our neighborhood, which every year was transformed into a twinkling winter wonderland featuring dozens of dazzling festive displays.  This included a giant Christmas tree spangled seemingly with thousands of multicolored bulbs.  The entire front lawn was transformed into a veritable galaxy of lights.  So spectacular was this display that people would come from miles around just to see what became known simply as “The House.”

I suspect that it will take more than a few days to disassemble all those lights and wires!

And yet, whenever I passed by this scene, I looked not so much at “The House” as I did at some of the other homes that immediately flanked it on either side.  I always felt kind of sorry because while they were adorned with their own pretty holiday decorations, none of which could match the head-turning array provided by “The House.”

My childhood memory can also serve as the perfect analogy for the current evening sky, since at this time of year, nature too seems to decorate the sky with bright stars.

And to be sure, if there is one constellation that could serve as the celestial version of “The House,” it’s Orion, the Mighty Hunter.  Indeed, everyone’s attention is always immediately drawn to Orion with its retinue of bright stars, its famous three-star belt and great gaseous nebula, known to be a stellar incubator for new stars.

Indeed, all of these spectacular attractions often draw attention away from some of the interesting, albeit dimmer, star patterns that just happen to be in Orion’s immediate vicinity.  Not misfits necessarily (as in the story of Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer), but after referring to such large and gaudy constellations, like Orion, it seems only fair to point out a few of those nearby that do not readily stand out.    

Constellation Eridanus

Constellation Eridanus

The Heavenly River
Located due south during the early evening hours is one of the sky’s long, winding constellations, Eridanus, the River, which is actually fun to trace out.  Begin at Orion, where the star Cursa is located, above and to the right of Orion’s brightest star (Rigel).  After passing two stars to the west note the close pair of stars, which have the catchy names Beid and Keid.  They are derived from the Arabic words for egg and eggshell, respectively.  At Zaurak begins a reverse curve, then four stars extend directly to the west.  Among these is Epsilon Eridani, one of our closest stellar neighbors at a mere 10.7 light years away.  Back in 1960 it was selected to be monitored by Project Ozma, a radio telescope that was directed toward it on the infinitesimal chance that it might possess a planet with a civilization advanced enough to transmit radio signals. To the ancients, the River ended at Acamar, but in reality, it is the bluish first magnitude star Achernar that glows at the end of the river.  It’s the ninth brightest star in the sky, yet positioned so far south that only those who live near and along the Gulf Coast get a glimpse of it, poking a short distance above the horizon.

Constellation Lepus

Constellation Lepus, The Hare

The Leaping Hare
Just to the south of Orion is a group of faint stars that seem to be arranged in the shape of a bow tie: Lepus, the Hare.

A number of early people associated the Hare with the Moon.  However, to the Arabs, the four brightest stars of Lepus, arranged in a crude rectangle, represented four Camels quenching their thirst.  According to star-name expert George A. Davis Jr., one of these stars, Nihal, means just that.  Lepus’s brightest star is called Arneb, a double star whose components are about 3rd and 11th magnitude.

One interesting variable star is labeled R. It is often placed in the same class as Mira Ceti, the Wonderful Star, because it has an irregular period of roughly 432 days. The astronomer J.R. Hind of London, first noted it in October 1845 and described it as “. . . resembling a blood drop on the background of the sky.”

Constellation Columba

Constellation Columba

Noahs Dove
Below Lepus, we find Columba, a star pattern not among the original 48 constellations usually attributed to the ancients.  Its origin is uncertain, but in most of the older star atlases it appears as a full-blown dove holding an olive branch in its beak.  Columba represents the dove that Noah sent forth after the flood to search for land, hence its original Latin name Columba Noachii. The Dove flies below Lepus, the Hare, and within its boundaries is the place from which the Sun is moving, the “antapex of the Sun’s way.”  In 1718, Sir Edmond Halley determined that the stars were not “fixed,” but moved across the sky in what we call their proper motion.  In our winter sky, the Sun’s path in space is taking us away from Columba at about 12.5 miles per second with respect to other nearby stars.

Jason’s Barge, Or is it Noah’s Ark?
It may also be possible to pick out a few of the northern stars of the now-defunct constellation Argo Navis.  In mythology, this was the ship used by Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece.  This very large star group lies mostly below our southern horizon, but a few of the ship’s higher structures jut up above our southern horizon.  In fact, the second brightest star in the sky, Canopus, is located in the Ship’s keel and can be seen from the central and southern United States.  The Great Ship Argo was sometimes associated with Noah’s Ark, which actually makes perfect sense with Columba nearby, suggesting that it may indeed be the dove of Noah!

 

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  • ERC says:

    ….I know exactly” that house” in Bronx you were referring to. Thats my neighborhood!

  • Susan S says:

    OK, I must ask… How in the heck does a constellation become “Defunct”?! Why is the Argo now a “Defunct” constellation? Did a star there blow up and vanish? Has it moved so far in the few centuries we’ve known about it that it no longer looks like it did? Please, I’d love to understand what happened…

    • Susan Higgins says:

      Hi Susan S: a constellation becomes defunct when it contains either just a scattering of faint stars that does not really form a particular shape, or, in the case of Argo, so large and unwieldy that astronomers found it better to break it up into several different constellations. In a sense, Argo the ship still exists, but is not recognized as a singular constellation. Instead, we have the Sails (Vela), the Stern (Puppis), the Keel (Carina) and the Mariners Compass (Pyxis).

  • Michelle Smith says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing these. I love to watch stars. If it is a clear night and I am outside I always stop and look up an go in a circle to see what stars and constellations are visible. I did not know about these three. I do look for Orion always so now I will be looking for these others you shared. 🙂

  • Bryant Cochran says:

    Great article. My wife and I purchased land with fairly dark sky, one of the reasons we selected this parcel, we will be sure to check these constellations out this weekend. Soon we hope to be living full time on our homestead and sky gazing will be an every night affair.

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