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Constellations small and dim, but a joy to find

Greetings, stargazers.

There are 88 keys on a piano, but I have yet to find a connection between that number and the fact there are also 88 constellations in the sky. Except, perhaps, that some astronomers are also musicians and vice versa.

The modern list of 88 constellations was finalized in 1922 by the International Astronomical Union. Because this number includes constellations in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres, at any one time you should be able to see about half, or 44. Forty-eight of these (all visible from northern latitudes) were listed by Ptolemy in the second century, but many of the names probably existed before written history began.

Constellations are all different sizes and vary greatly in how bright their stars are, so some are much easier to identify than others. Looking back on previous columns, I realize I have mentioned the easily recognizable constellations along the visible Milky Way, but totally skipped over several of the smaller, dimmer ones that are harder to find. Most of these have very few stars that are brighter than magnitude 4, so they might not even be visible from some parts of town. But you should be able to find the dim stars by using a good planisphere or astronomy app from a dark location.

How could I fail to bring up constellations with such great-sounding names as Vulpecula (the fox) and Sagitta (the arrow)? These two are within the boundaries of the summer triangle, so are straightforward to find. Just to their southeast are Delphinus (the dolphin), and Equuleus (the little horse). Again, small and dim.

I always like to bring up Camelopardalis in conversation. This sounds like a camel-leopard, which would be a very strange hybrid, but it is just a camel with spots. We know it as a giraffe. This is one of the modern constellations not found on Ptolemy’s list, being first mentioned in the 17th century. Camelopardalis is bigger than the constellations mentioned above, but is even dimmer. You can find it (from a very dark site) on the other side of Polaris from Ursa Minor, the little dipper. At first glance, that part of the sky is really empty.

Another recently-named constellation is Canes Venatici (the hunting dog), which is between Ursa Major and Bootes. Although dim, it is home to several nice galaxies visible through small telescopes, including M51, the Whirlpool galaxy. Leo Minor, also first named in the 17th century, is between Ursa Major and Leo.

This month

The full moon is on Nov. 19, and this full moon comes with an eclipse. Although this isn’t a total lunar eclipse, it will be about as close to total as possible without blocking the entire sunlit side. The umbral eclipse (the darker, and more noticeable part) starts about 1:18 a.m. and reaches maximum coverage at 3:04 a.m. Unlike a solar eclipse where the timing depends on your exact latitude and longitude, everyone sees a lunar eclipse start and end at the same time. I am hoping for snow like most Durangotangs, but maybe not on the morning of the 19th.

Venus, Jupiter and Saturn continue to dominate the southern sky, and still make excellent binocular or telescope targets.

The Leonid meteor shower peaks on the morning of Nov. 17, but the almost-full moon will make this shower less than spectacular. However, there should still be Leonids hitting the atmosphere during the eclipse, so that might be the best time to get out and count meteors.

Charles Hakes teaches in the physics and engineering department at Fort Lewis College and is the director of the Fort Lewis Observatory. Reach him at hakes_c@fortlewis.edu.

Useful links

LIST OF CONSTELLATIONS: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IAU_designated_constellations.

ASTRONOMY PICTURE OF THE DAY: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod.

OLD FORT LEWIS OBSERVATORY: www.fortlewis.edu/observatory.

AN ASTRONOMER’S FORECAST FOR DURANGO: https://bit.ly/2eXWa64.

FOUR CORNERS STARGAZERS: https://bit.ly/2pKeKKa.

https://bit.ly/3hOMKwh.