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June 30, 2010

One of the smallest but prettiest constellations glides high across the sky on summer nights. You need dark skies to see it, but it's worth the effort.

Delphinus, the dolphin, is outranked by 68 of the 88 constellations. It's so small that you can cover most of it with your hand held out at arm's length.

Yet under clear, dark skies, it's fairly easy to pick out because it really does look like a dolphin. Four stars outline its body, with another representing its tail.

There are two legends of how the dolphin found its way into the stars.

One says that the sea god, Poseidon, placed it there after a dolphin helped him win the heart of a sea nymph. The other says the dolphin made it into the stars after he rescued a great musician from the crew of his ship.

Either way, it's been depicted as a constellation for thousands of years. At the time it was first drawn it was a lot easier to see, though, because there were no streetlights or parking lots to drown out the night sky. Today, it's harder to pick out because all of its stars are faint, so they're easily overpowered by light pollution.

If you have a dark sky, though, it's worth a try. The dolphin is due east at nightfall, a little below the line linking the bright stars Deneb and Altair. It climbs high overhead later on, swimming alongside the faint glow of the Milky Way -- another treasure that's visible under dark skies.

More about the dolphin tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010

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