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The Reindeer

December 24, 2011

Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen!

On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donder and...Rangifer?

It may not rhyme, but a long-forgotten reindeer jingles his way across the northern sky tonight. And appropriately enough, he’s quite close to the north pole.

He’s the extinct constellation known as Tarandus vel Rangifer — a name that means “the reindeer.” He was created in the 1700s by French astronomer Pierre-Charles Le Monnier.

The constellation honored a scientific journey to Scandinavia to measure the length of a degree of latitude at that high-northern range. The observations helped prove that Earth isn’t perfectly round — it bulges a little at the equator.

Le Monnier was a member of the expedition. As he looked into the dark, quiet night sky, amid the classical outlines of the major constellations Cassiopeia, Cepheus, and Camelopardalis, he envisioned the tiny outline of a reindeer.

Its stars were faint, but they snuggled close to the star Polaris, which marks the north celestial pole.

Those stars are all high in the north this evening, directly above Polaris and to the right of “M”-shaped Cassiopeia. You need dark skies to see the reindeer’s stars, and more than a little imagination to see them as the outline of a reindeer. But what better time to exercise that imagination than on a Christmas Eve night — a night when reindeer always soar across the sky.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011


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