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Stargazing: Books are vital to learning the sky

Stargazing: Books are vital to learning the sky

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For the majority of amateur astronomers and stargazers, books and magazines that have star charts or finders may be the best way to look at and become familiar with the night sky.

Imagine, if you will, how difficult it must have been for the ancient cultures to learn the sky without having the benefit of an abundance of such books and magazines being available to them. I think they did just great.

Many of the constellations represented in the heavens back then were characters or artifacts that figured in myths and legend.

Because the constellations were definite entities, all of the neighboring stars that could not be properly placed in them were relegated to the category of “unformed stars.”

There were at one time 100 recognized star formations that had names and some mythological tale to represent them. Today, astronomers recognize only the 88 that have survived.

In those 88 constellations, however, can be found 30 inanimate objects, 42 animals and 16 associated with real or utterly fantastic humans.

Unlike ancient stargazing, constellations are no longer regarded as the shapes and figures of past civilizations. Twelve notable exceptions, however, are those formations found in the zodiac and referred to as sun signs.

From our vantage point here in southwest Iowa, it is impossible to see all 88 constellations because a majority of them lie below our local horizon. That same thing is true for stargazers living in the distant southern hemisphere who have never been able to see the asterism “Big Dipper” because it never rises about their local horizon.

A good friend of mine who interested in the stars, recently returned from a cruise to the Caribbean and when we spoke last he related to me how absolutely dark the skies were from the ship but the constellations he was familiar with were replaced by total “strangers.”

He was particularly impressed with having been able to view the constellation Crux, the Southern Cross for the first time and the two smaller galaxies we know as the Lesser and Greater Magellanic Clouds.

I’ve asked this question before in my column: “How far south must one travel before a noticeable change in the southern star patterns can be seen?” Springfield, MO., at 37 degrees north latitude.

During the middle of January, we are able to view several of the brightest night sky objects at once: Moon, Jupiter, Sirius and Mars. Of this group, Sirius is the only star and is now shining very bright in the high southeastern sky about 7:30 p.m. It is also the brightest star visible to us in the northern hemisphere.

Would you like to see the brightest star in the southern hemisphere? The star is named Canopus in the constellation of Carina and you’ll have to travel almost to New Orleans to get the best view.

The bright planet Venus which is now visible in the very early morning sky is moving closer and closer to the southeastern horizon and will soon disappear only to reappear in a few weeks in the southwestern sky. It will then become our evening “star.”

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