The Furnace

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The Furnace

Almost a century ago, astronomers split the celestial sphere into 88 constellations. Most of them — the famous ones — date from ancient times. But 14 of them — none of which is famous — were created by a single man, in the 18th century.

Nicolas Louis de La Caille was a French astronomer. In 1751, he set up an observatory in South Africa to study the stars of the southern hemisphere. Over the following year, he cataloged about 10,000 stars. Later, he used those stars to draw constellations in parts of the sky that weren’t visible from most of Europe.

He called one of them Mons Mensa — table mountain. It honored a feature near La Caille’s observatory. He named all the others for scientific instruments, such as the telescope and microscope, or artist’s tools, such as the painter’s easel.

One of those constellations is Fornax, the furnace, which is quite low in the south as night falls.

Originally, La Caille called it Fornax Chemica, after a small heater that was used for chemistry experiments. Another astronomer shortened the name a few decades later.

Fornax isn’t much to look at — at least not with the eye alone. It contains only one modestly bright star, Alpha Fornacis. But a telescope reveals many treasures within its borders. That includes some beautiful individual galaxies, plus a giant cluster of galaxies — fiery visions in the celestial furnace.

Tomorrow: a close look at a fiery moon.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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