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December 5, 2010

Try as you might, you won't find the constellation Apparatus Sculptoris -- the sculptor's workshop -- on any modern starcharts. It's there, but like many things in modern life, it's been abbreviated. Today, it's known simply as Sculptor.

The constellation was first drawn in the 1750s. French astronomer Nicholas Louis de la Caille had ventured to the southern tip of Africa to observe the stars of the southern hemisphere. The catalog of his observations included 14 new constellations in relatively barren regions of the sky.

And that certainly describes Sculptor. The constellation passes across the south and southwest this evening, but you'll need a dark sky to see even its brightest stars.

In fact, Sculptor is known not so much for its stars, but for its galaxies. It's home to a family of about a dozen galaxies known as the Sculptor Group.

The brightest member of the group is a beautiful spiral known as NGC 253. We see it almost edge-on, so through a telescope it looks like a slash of light against the dark sky.

NGC 253 is about the same size as our own galaxy, the Milky Way. But unlike the Milky Way, where new stars form at a deliberate pace, NGC 253 is giving birth to hundreds of thousands of new stars. That helps make NGC 253 one of the most beautiful galaxies around -- a perfect subject for a celestial sculptor.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010


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