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Pyxis and Antlia

High technology highlights the southern evening sky at this time of year — the technology of the 18th century. A couple of small, faint constellations are named for the high-tech devices of the time.

Pyxis, the compass, is in the south-southwest at nightfall, just above the horizon. Antlia, the air pump, is to its left.

Nicolas Louis de la Caille created these and other technology-themed constellations in the 1750s. He journeyed to Africa to map parts of the sky that were difficult or impossible to see from Europe. From that, he drew some new constellations that covered fairly barren regions of the sky.

His constellations honored the telescope and microscope, the pendulum clock, and an early instrument for navigating at sea.

In the case of Pyxis, several of its stars once were part of the giant constellation Argo Navis — the boat that carried Jason and the Argonauts. La Caille split the constellation into thirds, with each part representing a section of the boat.

He then took a few stars that were part of the ship’s mast and turned them into Pyxis — a magnetic compass. Its brightest stars form a line that aims almost due north and south. Those stars are faint, though, so you need a clear, dark sky to see them

The stars of Antlia are even tougher to spot. They represent an air pump that had been invented by a French engineer a few decades earlier — a bit of 18th-century technology in the modern night sky.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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