Forgotten constellations

We go back to a time when herds of pelorovis still roamed the earth, and humans could gaze at a night sky filled with thousands of stars, something we can only witness today in areas that are free from luminous pollution. Randomly scattered and without any particular meaning, some of them have been associated by man with familiar shapes.

Constellations are groups of stars that make up simple shapes, which look like animals, people, objects etc. This involuntary “recognition” of familiar patterns in clouds, on the Moon or freshly-toasted bread is called “pareidolia.”

The first mention of constellations concerned Orion and Taurus, which are supposed to have originated in the Neolithic age.

Most of the constellations’ names and given meanings accompanied the practice of agriculture. Since ancient times man has noticed and used the changes in the sky as a calendar, in order to know when to sow and when to reap the harvest. Much like today, constellations were used as nighttime guidance, especially at sea.

Nowadays we have a total of 88 constellations on the entire sky (northern and southern hemispheres combined), out of which 48 are on Ptolemy’s list (he wasn’t the one to give them their names), classified around 150 AD, along with another 11 constellations contributed by explorers Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser and Frederick de Houtman in the Southern Hemisphere (1590s), and 17 constellations also in the Southern Hemisphere, identified  by Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, who was also the one to divide the Argo Navis constellation into four others during the 1700s. The German astronomer Gottfried Kirch added 3 constellations in the Northern Hemisphere around 1650, and the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius added 11 more around the same time. The writings of Johann Elert Bode mention another 7 constellations named by himself, 14 by others, and another 9 categorized by various others, also in the Northern Hemisphere. If you’ve counted over 100, then you’ve counted correctly.

We haven’t always had 88 constellations, and up till the International Astronomical Union’s decision in 1922, when the aspect of constellations was first discussed, many were always adding an asterism or another. Selecting the constellations that would remain as such wasn’t over until 1930, when the official list was published, containing distinct boundaries of the constellations, according to diagrams for each of them. This is the definite list, and no other elements can be added or removed, just in case you’re contemplating purchasing or making up a new one.

The oldest constellations were preserved, having been “in use” for a long time, and several of the lesser-known were removed, whether they had little historical significance or were composed of stars which are barely-visible with the naked eye.

Here are some of the constellations that disappeared in time, and never made it to the top 88:


ANSER (The Goose)

Created by Johannes Hevelius, this constellation received its name along with Vulpecula (The Fox), and together they formed “Vulpecula cum Ansere”. It’s composed of stars with a magnitude of 4-5, located between Cygnus and Aquila.

The constellation disappeared following its omission from the star maps, being associated with Vulpecula. The the International Astronomical Union decided to preserve the initial name of Vulpecula, and its boundaries include the former “Anser”. Nowadays, the alpha star of Vulpecula is known as Anser.


ARGO NAVIS (The Argo Ship)

Formed of the four constellations: Carine, Pyxis, Vela and Puppis – all ship parts. It’s on Ptolemy’s list, and the only one that did not “survive”. It represents Jason’s ship on his voyage to retrieve the Golden Fleece, in Greek mythology.

It was split into four at the proposal of Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, following his 1752 expedition in the Southern Hemisphere. It was formed of approximately 160 stars, and spanned over 60 degrees (vertical).  It was omitted because of its dimensions.

The tip of the mast (Puppis) is visible from Romania, near the horizon, to the left of Sirius, the alpha star of Canis Major.


Felis (The Cat)

Constellation that we all would have wished could stay and purr in the sky, it was invented by Joseph Jérôme Lefrançois de Lalande using less bright stars (magnitude 5 and below), between Hydra and Antila.

The constellation did not prove popular on the European continent and it was absent from European star atlases, only adopted by American cartographers. In time, it disappeared from 19th century writings, and at the time when the definite limits were drawn, its stars were split between nearby constellations: Hydra, Pyxis and Antila.


Among the forgotten constellations are several other creations that may seem amusing given that they were once in the sky, and should the 1922 decision have been in their favour, today we would be searching for deep-sky objects and stars in the following constellations:

GLOBUS AEROSTATICUS (“Balloon”) between Capricornus and Piscis Austrinus, concocted by Joseph Jérôme Lefrançois de Lalande in 1798 to honour the invention of the hot-water balloon by the Montgolfiers.

MACHINA ELECTRICA (“Electric Generator”), invented by Johann Elert Bode in the 1800s and placed between Fornax and the Sculptor. Formed partially from the latter’s stars.

OFFICINA TYPOGRAPHICA (“Typography”) the second bizarre constellation named by Joseph Jérôme Lefrançois de Lalande about the same time as the Globus, but later introduced by Johann Elert Bode in star maps. It used to be between Canis Major and Puppis, and was left aside, together with other suggestions by Bode.

HONORES FREDERICI (“Glory of Frederick”) surrounded by stars belonging to Andromeda and Lacerta. Introduced by Johann Elert Bode to commemorate Frederick the 2nd of Prussia, in 1787. It used 76 dim stars, to form a sword and a crown.

MONS MAENALUS (“Mount Maenalus”) between Virgo and Libra, at the feet of Bootes, who is stepping on it. Some of its stars belong to the Bootes constellations. It disappeared in time, and the IAU kept it within the boundaries of the Bootes constellation.

This article was also published in Vega Magazine, no 151/January 2016


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