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Johannes Hevelius

January 29, 2011

The eastern sky offers some well-known sights on winter evenings. By around 9 o'clock tonight, for example, Leo is springing skyward in the east, with the Big Dipper standing on its handle in the northeast.

But the space around these landmarks is filled with some faint constellations. There's Sextans, the sextant, to the right of Leo; Leo Minor to its upper left; Canes Venatici, the hunting dogs, below the Big Dipper; and Lynx above the dipper.

These faint star figures were all created by Johannes Hevelius, who was born 400 years ago this week in Danzig, a city on the Baltic Sea. He studied law and mathematics, and developed an interest in astronomy while touring Europe. Then he returned to Danzig to help run the family brewery, and soon was elected mayor. But with the help of his wife, he was able to spend much of his time studying the sky.

He built some of the finest telescopes of the day, and used them to map the surface of the Moon and to chart sunspots. He also discovered that Mercury goes through a series of phases, just as the Moon does.

Hevelius published many of his findings himself -- he even engraved the plates that showed his maps of the Moon. And he created several new constellations. They honored his patron, the King of Poland, as well as one of his scientific instruments, which was destroyed in a fire.

The constellations help preserve the work -- and the memory -- of an accomplished astronomical observer.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010

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