The Frigate Bird

One of the most frequent requests we get at Frosty Drew Observatory is to point out the constellations. And I'll have to admit that when such a request is not forthcoming we have been known to play pied piper and lead a merry chase about the yard pointing at this and that and telling the stories of this hero or that heroine much as the stories were told thousands of years ago. The constellations (literally "stars grouped together") really have no boundaries beyond common agreement.

The "official" constellations weren't even established until the early 1930s by a French astronomer Eugene Delporte working on behalf of the International Astronomical Union. Delporte chose to adopt patterns established by Greeks and Romans augmented by his countryman Abbe LaCaille's definitions of southern constellations. This resulted in 87 or 88 groupings. (The snake [Serpens] is really two constellations with part of the snake "hidden" by the snake handler Ophiuchus). While this activity resolved some conflicts in whether a star belonged to this or that constellation, it really serves little scientific purpose beyond common naming. Of the uncounted trillions of objects that can be seen in telescopes, only a few hundred have names recognized by anyone. For the rest we rely on the object's coordinates or perhaps its catalog number.

Sometimes a constellation is obviously misnamed to modern eyes. I favor constellations which actually outline a familiar shape in a connect the dots manner to one which stretches well beyond the bounds of imagination. The Big Dipper is more descriptive than Ursa Major (the Great Bear), as is the Teapot (Sagittarius/Archer), the Cheshire Cat Smile (Capricorn/Goat) or the Square (Pegasus/Flying Horse), the Keystone (Hercules) and the Northern Cross (Cygnus/Swan).

Certainly Leo's outline looks like a Lion at rest and Scorpio looks very much like a Scorpion. Maybe you can see the face of Cephus (King of Ethiopia) wearing a pointed hat, but his wife Cassiopeia looks like a W. know very few ladies outside of an aerobics class who adopt that shape. You really have to have a vivid imagination to see a Puppy (Canis Minor) or a lovely Maiden (Virgo). Perhaps the Puppy could be the Bone (it has two bright stars Procyon and Gomissa). The Maiden's outline consists of one very bright star (Spica) and many lesser stars. The connect the dots for this constellation would probably best be called the ZigZag or the Scribble.

Some constellations were obviously misnamed. There are two constellations named the Triangle (Triangulum and Triangulum Australis). Yes they both look like triangles. However right smack dab in the Summer and Fall skies is a perfect huge Right Triangle which is called - well actually its isn't called anything because it is parts of three other constellations Lyra (Lyre), Aquilia (Eagle) and Cygnus (Swan). This doesn't stop me from calling it the Summer Triangle along with many thousands of others. Of all the misnamed constellations certainly the Plieades (a portion of Taurus) should be the Little Dipper. It really looks like a Dipper as does its giant counter part to the north, which is more than I can say for Ursa Minor.

What triggered all of these ruminations was a session with some sky mapping software I have that allows me to select star by brightness. I limited one of my searches to fourth magnitude or brighter stars (stars you can see most nights from Charlestown). I suddenly noticed that one of the most prominent constellations Orion stopped looking like a human torso and looked like the outline of a Frigate Bird (a Wandering Albatross) if you included some stars from Lepus, Taurus and Canis Major.

Like so many before me I had created a mythical constellation. No paltry constellation for me. Oh no, I designed one that spanned 70 degrees from wing tip to wing tip by 20 degrees from beak to tail. Displaying scarcely any vestige of modesty I selected the most conspicuous stars visible from the northern hemisphere, two brilliant star clusters and a huge stellar birthing area in building my soaring bird. What the Greeks and Romans saw as a great hunter Orion, a charging bull and his dog, the Chinese saw as the Second Minister of Water Works (!), and American Plains Indians saw as the ribs and backbone of a Bison. It is all in how you look at it!

Leslie Coleman
Leslie Coleman
Entry Date:
Feb 1, 2003
Published Under:
Leslie Coleman's Columns
Subscribe to Leslie Coleman's Columns RSS Feed