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Nicolas Louis de Lacaille

May 15, 2013

As darkness falls this evening, the twins of Gemini stand above the western horizon, to the right of the Moon. Leo, the lion, is to their upper left, with Libra, the balance scales, just climbing skyward in the southeast.

All of these constellations are thousands of years old — drawn so long ago that we can’t be sure who created them. That’s not the case with a handful of constellations in the skies of the southern hemisphere. They were created by a French astronomer who was born 300 years ago today.

Nicolas Louis de Lacaille originally planned to enter the clergy. But during his studies he became interested in mathematics and astronomy, so he switched his career. He worked at the Paris Observatory for a while, then established his own observatory.

In 1751, he set up his instruments at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. He then spent the next year compiling the most extensive map to date of southern-hemisphere skies.

Lacaille’s atlas was published in 1763 — a year after his death. It included the positions of almost 2,000 bright stars. It also included 14 new constellations. Many of them honored scientific instruments — the telescope, microscope, pendulum clock, and others. Lacaille also split the sky’s largest constellation — Argo Navis, the ship that carried Jason and the Argonauts — into three separate constellations.

Lacaille’s creations are still in use today — star patterns with a well-known history.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013

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