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February 19, 2010

Skywatchers have been drawing pictures in the stars for millennia -- connect-the-dots diagrams of people, animals, and objects. And over the centuries, many of those pictures have been changed -- sometimes with an eraser, but other times with a cleaver.

That's the case with the constellation Puppis, which scoots low across the south on winter evenings. It's below and to the left of Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.

Puppis represents the deck at the back of the Argo, the ship that carried Jason and the Argonauts. Originally, the ship itself was represented by a giant constellation known as Argo Navis. But a few centuries ago, astronomers decided it was just too big, so they split it into three separate constellations: Puppis; Vela, which represents the sails; and Carina, the hull and keel.

Puppis is still a big constellation, though. It includes not only the picture of the poop deck, but a large swath of space around it. It's so big, in fact, that you'd need four outstretched hands to cover it up.

Most of the stars in that span of sky are fairly faint, so you need dark skies to see them. Many of them look faint because they're far away. Up close, they'd be quite impressive. That includes its brightest star, Zeta Puppis, which is one of the hottest stars in the galaxy. We'll have more about that tomorrow.

In the meantime, look for the stern of the Argo wrapping around brilliant Sirius, which is in the southeast at nightfall.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2009

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