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March 26, 2016

Sometimes, you can have too much of a good thing. That was the case with a constellation that was created thousands of years ago. It was so big that astronomers eventually split it apart.

Argo Navis represented the Argo — the ship that carried Jason and the Argonauts through many adventures. It proved so unwieldy, though, that in the 1750s Nicolaus Louis de la Caille divided it into three constellations: Carina, the keel; Vela, the sail; and Puppis, the deck at the stern of the ship.

Of the three, Puppis is the easiest to see from northern skies. As night falls this evening, it’s well to the left and lower left of Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. The entire constellation is in view if you’re south of about Dallas, but most of it is visible from points farther north.

The constellation’s leading star, Zeta Puppis, looks fairly modest. But that’s only because it’s about a thousand light-years away. It’s actually quite impressive — hundreds of thousands of times brighter than the Sun.

The star is also somewhere between 20 and 40 times as massive as the Sun. Such heavy stars burn through the nuclear fuel in their cores at a furious rate. As a result, Zeta Pup will live only a few million years, versus billions of years for stars like the Sun. And when its time is up, it will go not quietly into that good night. Instead, it will explode as a supernova — briefly making the stern of the Argo one of the most prominent of all constellations.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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