Little Constellations

StarDate: June 29, 2010

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Summer nights offer one of the grandest star patterns in the sky: the Summer Triangle. Right now, it's well up in the east at nightfall. Dazzling Vega stands atop the triangle, with Deneb to its lower left and Altair farther to its lower right.

But that same region of sky also includes some less-prominent sights: three of the smallest constellations. Sagitta, the arrow, is fairly close to Altair, with Delphinus, the dolphin, and Equuleus, the colt, stacked below it.

Delphinus is the easiest to pick out, because its five brightest stars form a small pattern that really looks like a dolphin. We'll have more about the dolphin tomorrow.

Sagitta -- the third smallest of the 88 constellations -- looks like its namesake, too -- an arrow fired by Hercules or Cupid. As for Equuleus, the second-smallest constellation, you need a really good imagination to "see" a colt among its stars.

In fact, you need really dark skies to see any of its stars at all -- or those of the dolphin or arrow, either. Light from streetlamps, parking lots, neon signs, and porch lights fills the sky with a glare that overpowers faint stars.

Some cities and counties have banned light fixtures that are the biggest culprits. They've also replaced some of their own fixtures with ones that cast their light on the ground, where it's needed, and not into the sky, where it masks the arrow, the dolphin, the colt -- and many other celestial wonders.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010

For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.

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