domingo, 13 de mayo de 2012

Asterisms: Signposts in the Sky

The Big Dipper by Juno Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SWRI/MSSS
In the Northern hemisphere, each season is heralded by its own asterism: The Autumn sky is dominated by the great Square of Pegasus, formed by stars from both Pegasus and Andromeda and its top left corner points the way to the Andromeda Galaxy, just a hop, skip and jump away. Most people recognise the three stars Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka, making up the Belt of Orion, which shines bright in the Winter sky indicating one of the richest regions in the sky, the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex. The Diamond of Virgo marking the Spring, consists of Arcturus (Boötes), Spica (Virgo), Denebola (Leo) and Cor Caroli (Canes Venatici). These encompass the constellation Coma Berenices and many of the galaxies within the Virgo Cluster. The Summer Triangle of Deneb (Cygnus), Altair (Aquila), and Vega (Lyra) currently sails over us guiding the way to the Ring Nebula in its top right corner.

Searching for Leo? Look for the Sickle, a backwards question mark that represents the lion’s head. Hunting for Hercules? The Keystone is the key and you will also find the Hercules Cluster (M13) on its right hand side. Boötes is easier to spot if you look for the Kite or Ice Cream Cone, than try to make out an ox driver! Not many people can see poor Queen Cassiopia, punished for her vanity to circle the heavens, but the W that marks the constellation is instantly recognisable. The Circlet is a lovely signpost to one of the fish of Pisces. You’d be hard pressed to recognise Sagittarius as the centaur it depicts, but there is the Teapot (Bertrand Russell was right, there is a celestial teapot!) showing the way to this rich patch of sky.
The Southern hemisphere has no shortage of asterisms either, most notably Argo Navis which represents the entire ship Argo sailed by Jason and the Argonauts and would be the largest constellation in the sky if it hadn’t been broken up in 1752 by French astronomer Nicolas Louis de Lacaille into the constellations we know today as Carina (the keel), Puppis (the poop deck) and Vela (the sails). Also in the Southern hemisphere are found The Three Patriachs in Triangulum Australe and the Fish Hook in Scorpius among others.
There are many more obscure asterisms too. Job’s Coffin graces the constellation of Delphinus, Asses and the Manger are in Cancer, Poniatowski’s bull (named for the King of Poland) is part of Ophiuchus and Aquila. There are the Lozenge, Saxophone, Coathanger, and many more.
The sky can seem a bewildering place, filled with gods, kings and mythical creatures. Asterisms like the Teapot make a more welcoming and friendly introduction, allowing a novice stargazer to easily pick their way around the sky and gain confidence and as many stars get swallowed by increasing light pollution, asterisms still shine out to show the way.
Find out more about asterisms here.
Source:  Universe Today

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