What Constellation Am I Looking At?


Part One Of An Experiment.

It’s natural to wonder what the heck you’re looking at in the sky. The sky’s there nearly all the time, after all, and most of it isn’t clearly annotated. We’ve divided the sky into … uhm … I want to say 86 constellations. I know at one time there were the same number of constellations as there were counties in Ohio at one time. And I know there are … not 84 counties in Ohio. Does 86 sound right? It’s not. It seems like a lot of counties to have.

Most of the constellations we can’t see anymore because they’re in the wrong hemisphere or they’re some screwy thing they came up with in the Age of Discovery, when Europeans looked up for the first time in four hundred years and noticed stars. So there’s a bunch of constellations representing what was important to them at the time and that nobody cares about anymore, like the Equatorial Fardel and the Southern Bill Of Exchange. We can’t see most of them anymore, since we left the lights on. So I’m just going to talk about the constellations we can see. Also they keep finding new counties in Ohio, owing to bad surveying in 1794.

First, you have to go see some constellations. That involves looking at the sky. Is it mostly blue or grey with one giant star it’s hard to look at? Maybe with like a half a white part-circle? It’s daytime. Those are the sun and the moon. They’re not part of any constellations, owing to a fantastically heated and complicated yet somehow boring quarrel they had online with Vega and the Lesser Magellanic Cluster. Those are other things you will not see. Try again, this time at night.

OK. So go look at the sky and let’s work out what you see. Does the thing you’re seeing look like anything at all, or is it just a big sloppy mess of stars? If it’s just a big sloppy mess of stars then you’re looking at Hydra, the hydra, named by someone who wasn’t trying hard. Hydra occupies about four-fifths of the night sky because it turns out to be quite hungry and none of the other constellations have any idea how to handle this besides “let’s run at it and hope we choke one of its many, many throats!” Remember, the night sky is not that bright.

So let’s suppose the thing you’re looking at looks like something. Does it look like a person? Let’s suppose it does. Is it Orion? If it is Orion, then you’re looking at Orion. If it looks like a person and it isn’t Orion, then it’s Hercules. Yell at it for not dealing with Hydra already. I don’t know what his problem is. There were some great sequences in his Disney movie. You can’t say that about every constellation.

So there are things other than people that a constellation can look like. For example, it might look like a real thing that isn’t a person. Is the real thing that it looks like a dipper? If it is then we’re making progress. Is it big? If it’s a big dipper then you’re looking at the Big Dipper. If it’s not so big a dipper then you’re looking at the Little Dipper. They should be pretty close to one another and if they aren’t check to see whether Hercules is trying to stuff a dipper down Hydra’s throat. If he is, again, explain to him that choking isn’t the way to handle a hydra.

More progress. Suppose it looks like some real thing that isn’t a person and isn’t a dipper. Is it a cross? If it is, then check what hemisphere you’re in, which you can do by examining whether your Mercator maps are right-side up. If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, then the cross you’re looking at is the Southern Cross, so named by a team that thought the people who named Hydra were trying too hard. If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere, then you’re looking at Cygnus, the Swan. Cygnus you’ll recognize as not the star of E B White’s classic The Trumpet Of The Swan. There isn’t even a trumpet constellation, I guess. If you’re looking at something that’s a real shape but isn’t a cross then it’s Pegasus.

So now we’re left with a constellation that looks like something but isn’t a real thing. Is it some shape? I can help you there. Does it look like a W? That’s Cassiopeia, ancient queen of spell checkers. If it doesn’t, it’s Cepheus, which you can double-check on by whether it’s grumbling about how Cassiopeia gets to be in the alphabet.

If you’ve got all this way and still don’t know what you’re looking at then say it’s Lyra. That’s a good choice. That’s got a nice constellation-y sound to its name and we can’t see the actual Lyra anymore anyway.

Happy stargazing! This month’s lucky planets are Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and PowerBall Planet Mercury.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

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