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January 24, 2020

If Nicolas Louis de Lacaille were naming constellations today, he might call them the spectrometer, seismometer, or even DNA sequencer. Since Lacaille was working in the 1750s, though, he went with names for the scientific instruments of his own time. So today, we have constellations named for the telescope, the compass, and the microscope.

Another is Fornax, the furnace. It’s named for a piece of lab equipment used by chemists. Like Lacaille’s other constellations, it’s south of the celestial equator. So from the United States, it’s best seen from the southern states. Right now, it stands low above the southern horizon as night falls.

Lacaille was a French astronomer. He went on his constellation-naming spree after spending two years at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. He cataloged 10,000 southern stars. And he used some of those stars to create 14 constellations.

Most of them are small and faint, like Fornax. Its brightest star is only fourth magnitude — too faint to see from light-polluted cities.

The star is known as Alpha Fornacis. It’s about 45 light-years away. It actually consists of two stars. The main star is bigger, brighter, and heavier than the Sun. Its companion is less massive than the Sun. But it shines bright blue, which is rare for such a lightweight star. That suggests it got “revved up” by swallowing gas from a possible third star in the system — or by merging with the star — heating up the furnace.


Script by Damond Benningfield

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