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Southern Slivers

February 2, 2014

Winter nights are filled with big, bold star pictures — constellations like Orion, Taurus, and Gemini, as well as Canis Major, home to Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.

Yet winter nights also feature some star patterns that are small and feeble — little slivers of stars between the brighter constellations. All of them were created in the 1750s by French astronomer Nicolaus Louis de Lacaille.

At the time, the constellations consisted of the classical star pictures drawn in ancient times — figures like the hunter, the bull, and the twins. The stars between these well-known figures were orphans.

De Lacaille set out to change that — especially in southern skies. He journeyed to the southern tip of Africa to map them.

When he was done, he drew 14 new constellations. Most of them are so far south that they’re barely visible from much of the northern hemisphere. He named most of them for scientific instruments.

Several of those constellations scoot low across the south tonight. All of them are quite faint, so they’re tough to see. And you need to be south of about Kansas City for them to climb very far above the horizon.

As night falls, Fornax, the furnace, stands due south. Caelum, the chisel, takes that spot about an hour later. Pyxis, the compass, is due south around midnight, with Antlia, the air pump, following a couple of hours later — little slivers of stars between the bold lights of winter skies.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013

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