The Smallest Constellations

By Dennis Mammana

September 19, 2019 4 min read

Week of Sept. 22-28, 2019

Not all constellations are created equally. Few things illustrate this better than facing east and then casting your gaze straight overhead this week after dark.

There you'll spot the grand asterism known as the Summer Triangle, outlined by the three bright stars Deneb, Vega and Altair. Nearby, however, you'll find a few smaller constellations that are often overshadowed by the fame of the Triangle. These include Delphinus, Equuleus, Lacerta, Sagitta and Vulpecula — most of which you've probably never heard of. So maybe it's time to check out these faint and often ignored celestial gems.

Since many of these stars are tough to find under even dark, rural skies, the best time to look will be during the last week or two of September, when the moon is gone from the early evening sky.

Let's begin with Delphinus, the dolphin, just east of the Triangle — perhaps the easiest of the bunch to spot. This group of five stars probably originated in ancient Greece and, amazingly, looks like a tiny dolphin leaping from the water. When Poseidon, the god of the sea, wanted to marry Amphitrite, she became so disgusted at the thought of living underwater that she fled to the distant Atlas Mountains. Poseidon sent several messengers after her, in hopes that she might return to him. Only the Delphinus succeeded, and it was rewarded with a place in the heavens.

Just east of the dolphin lies another beloved animal: Equuleus, the little horse. These stars form an ancient group whose origins are lost in history. The first-century astronomer Claudius Ptolemy mentioned this constellation in his great book "Almagest," but since Ptolemy borrowed much of his material from earlier writers, one must wonder if Equuleus might have actually been created by the Greek astronomer Hipparchus three centuries earlier. As the second tiniest constellation in the heavens — and one of the faintest — Equuleus is tough to see under even the darkest of conditions.

On the western side of Delphinus lies Sagitta, identified as either a stray arrow shot by Apollo to kill the Cyclops or as one of Cupid's arrows. Interestingly, its name comes from ancient Hebrew, Armenian and Arabic and in all these languages means "arrow." This is the smallest of all constellations in the sky and has no stars bright enough to see easily from under city or suburban lights.

The remaining two small constellations are relatively new, created by the seventeenth-century Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in his 1690 atlas titled "Firmamentum Sobieski."

One of these is Lacerta, the lizard. Hevelius created this star grouping to enclose the stars of such a tiny area of the sky that no other constellation would fit.

Another was Vulpecula, the fox. Interestingly, it was here that, in 1967, astronomer Jocelyn Bell discovered the first pulsar — a rapidly rotating neutron star whose regularly pulsating radio signals led some to believe (erroneously) that they were receiving a message from an intelligent extraterrestrial civilization.

Hevelius originally introduced Vulpecula with a celestial companion and was named "Vulpecula cum Anser" (Fox with Goose). Oddly, however, the fox remains, but the goose no longer appears on modern star charts.

Hmmm ...

 Check out these faint and often ignored celestial gems.
Check out these faint and often ignored celestial gems.

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