Interesting Facts About 10 Obscure Northern Constellations
We all know the major constellations like those of the zodiac, or others like Orion, Ursa Major, Cassiopeia, and others, but how many of us know the small, obscure constellations and how they came to be, or even where to find them in the sky? Below are some details and facts about a random selection of obscure northern hemisphere constellations that you may not have known.
Note that all of the constellations on this list are exceedingly faint and it might not be possible to see them from light polluted areas except with large telescopes, or by means of photographic imaging processes. Also note that the number of double stars listed for each constellation only refers to double stars in the constellation that should be detectable with amateur equipment under dark skies such as high quality retail telescopes and binoculars.
Antlia, the Air Pump
Location: Southern hemisphere, but visible from the UK between latitudes +45° and -90°, taking up an area of 239 square degrees. Antlia borders on the constellations Centaurus, Hydra, Pyxis, and Vela.
Number of NGC Objects: 66
Number of double stars: 20
Notable deep sky objects: The Pump does not have any Messier objects, but it does have 2 stars that host one planet each. Other notable objects include the Antlia Dwarf Galaxy, the Antlia Galaxy Cluster, and NGC 2997, an unbarred spiral galaxy.
Origin: When Nicolas de Lacaille created this exceedingly faint constellation in the early 18th century, he decided to call it “Antlia Pneumatica”, in honour of the recently invented air pump. It is just one of 13 constellations created by de Lacaille for the sole purpose of filling in what he referred to as “… empty spaces in the sky”.
Columba, the Dove
Location: Southern hemisphere, but visible from the UK between latitudes +45° and -90°, taking up an area of 270 square degrees. Columba borders on the constellations Caelum, Canis Major, Lepus, Pictor, and Puppis.
Number of NGC Objects: 17
Number of double stars: 29
Notable deep sky objects: Columba is the epitome of obscurity; it contains no bright stars, no stars with planets, no Messier objects, or any other noteworthy deep sky objects.
Origin: Petrus Plancius created the constellation by grouping together some stars from behind the now obsolete giant constellation Argo Navis, which was created to represent the ship the Argonauts had sailed on in their quest for the Golden Fleece. However, before Argo Navis was broken up to create three smaller constellations, Plancius included it on a celestial globe in 1613, but with the name, “Noah’s Ark”.
Note: Columba attains a maximum transit altitude of 3° based on Monkton’s location therefore, may be hard to spot from our deep lying observatory.
Equuleus, the Colt
Location: Northern hemisphere, between latitudes +90° and -80°, taking up an area of only 72 square degrees. Equuleus borders on the constellations Aquarius, Delphinus and Pegasus.
Number of NGC Objects: 4
Number of double stars: 12
Notable deep sky objects: Equuleus does not contain any Messier objects, or stars brighter than fourth magnitude although it does have 2 stars that host 3 planets between them. The only noteworthy deep sky objects are NGC 7015, NGC 7040, and NGC 7046, which are all exceedingly dim galaxies, and NGC 7045, a binary star.
Origin: Also sometimes known as “Equus Primus”, the First Horse, on account of the fact that it rises just before Pegasus, the Winged Horse, the constellation Equuleus is sometimes associated with Celeris, which was said to have been gift that Castor bestowed on Mercury. The antecedents of the foal is however not clear; some traditions hold that the foal was sired by Pegasus; with others maintaining that the foal was a brother of the Winged Horse.
Lepus, the Rabbit
Location: Northern hemisphere, between latitudes +63° and -90°, taking up an area of 290 square degrees. Lepus borders on the constellations Caelum, Canis Major, Columba, Eridanus, Monoceros, and Orion.
Number of NGC Objects: 32
Number of double stars: 35
Notable deep sky objects: Lepus contains a single Messier object, M79 (NGC 1904), a large globular cluster, and 4 stars that host six planets between them. Other noteworthy deep sky objects include the spectacularly beautiful Spirograph Nebula (IC 418), and Hind’s Crimson Star (R Leporis), a carbon star of such a vividly red hue that it led its discoverer, J. R. Hind, to describe it as “[appearing] like a drop of blood on a black field.”
Origin: Although Lepus is not associated with any myths or mythological characters, it is located right under the “feet” of Orion, which is perhaps why ancient Arab astronomers saw it as a rabbit or hare being chased by the Hunters’ dogs. The brightest star in Lepus was named “Arneb” meaning “the hare” by Arab astronomers, who also used the stars Kappa-, Iota-, Lambda-, and Nu Leporis to mark out the hare’s ears.
Lynx, the Tiger
Location: Northern hemisphere, between latitudes +90° and -55°, taking up an area of 545 square degrees. Lynx borders on the constellations Auriga, Camelopardalis, Cancer, Gemini, Leo, Leo Minor, and Ursa Major.
Number of NGC Objects: 107
Number of double stars: 44
Notable deep sky objects: Lynx has no Messier objects, but it does have 6 stars with one planet each.
Origin: Hevelius was another creator of constellations, but when he created Lynx in the 17th century, he added a note in his catalogue that the reference to a feline has to do with the fact that the constellation is so faint that observers need “… the eyesight of a lynx to see it at all”, no doubt due to the fact that the brightest stars in the constellation are only of the fourth magnitude.
Sextans, the Sextant
Location: Equatorial, between latitudes +80° and -90°, taking up an area of 314 square degrees. Sextans borders on the constellations Crater, Hydra, and Leo.
Number of NGC Objects: 64
Number of double stars: 13
Notable deep sky objects: Sextans lies in a very dim region of the sky, and only one star in the constellation is brighter than 5th magnitude. The constellation has no Messier objects, but it does have 5 stars that host 8 planets between them. Sextans also contains several noteworthy deep sky objects, including two spiral galaxies (NGC 3166 and NGC 3169), the famous Spindle Galaxy (NGC 3115), and two irregular galaxies, Sextans A and Sextans B. The Galaxy is also the apparent point of origin of the Sextantids meteor shower.
Origin: The constellation was one of many created by the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in the 1680’s. Hevelius named all of his creations after scientific instruments; this particular constellation was originally named “Sextans Uraniae”, after his beloved sextant that was destroyed when his observatory burned down in 1697.
Sagitta, the Arrow
Location: Equatorial, between latitudes +90° and -70°, taking up an area of only 80 square degrees. However, Sagitta is visible from any point on earth, except from positions south of the Antarctic Circle. Sagitta borders on the constellations Aquila, Delphinus, Hercules, and Vulpecula.
Number of NGC Objects: 6
Number of double stars: 15
Notable deep sky objects: Sagitta has no stars brighter than 4th magnitude, but it does have one Messier object, M71 (NGC 6838), a globular cluster, and the Necklace Nebula ((PN G054.2-03.4) a spectacular planetary nebula that was only discovered in 2005. The constellation also has 2 stars with one planet each.
Origin: Sagitta is associated with many stories from classical Greek mythology, but one myth that is most often recounted has it that the constellation represents the arrow that Apollo had used to kill the Cyclopes. The story goes that the Cyclopes had supplied the thunderbolts with which Zeus had killed Apollo’s beloved son Asclepius, the famous healer, who is immortalized by the constellation Ophiuchus.
Pyxis, the Compass
Location: (Viewable from UK) Southern hemisphere, between latitudes +50° and -90°, taking up an area of 221 square degrees. Pyxis borders on the constellations Antlia, Hydra, Puppis and Vela.
Number of NGC Objects: 12
Number of double stars: 18
Notable deep sky objects: NGC 2818, a planetary nebula, NGC 2627, a large-ish open star cluster, and NGC 2613, a barred spiral galaxy.
Origin: When Nicolas de Lacaille created the constellation in the mid 1750’s, he named it la Boussole, but changed it to Pixis Nautica soon after, and it is under the new designation that this constellation appeared on his star chart that was published in 1763. The name was later shortened to Pyxis, to make it easier for cartographers to fit onto star charts.
The constellation is said to represent the magnetic compass used by mariners, but it should not be confused with the constellation Circinus, which is taken to represent the compass used by draftsmen to draw circles, or measure distances on charts.
Scutum, the Shield
Location: (Equatorial) Southern hemisphere, between latitudes +80° and -90°, taking up an area of 109 square degrees. Scutum borders on the constellations Aquila, Sagittarius and Serpens Cauda.
Number of NGC Objects: 12
Number of double stars: 9
Notable deep sky objects: M11, also known as the Wild Duck cluster, and M26, a large open star cluster. It is also home to Delta Scuti, a variable star that serves as the prototype for the Delta Scuti class of variable stars.
Origin: When Scutum was originally created by the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in the 17th century, he named it Scutum Sobiescianum, meaning the Shield of King Jan III Sobieski, the Polish King who won the Battle of Vienna in 1683. Then again, the fact the king had funded the rebuilding of Hevelius’ observatory after a fire had destroyed it in 1679 might have had something to do with it as well.
Vulpecula, the Little Fox
Location: Northern hemisphere between latitudes +90° and -55°, taking up an area of 268 square degrees. Vulpecula borders on the constellations Cygnus, Delphinus, Hercules, Lyra, Pegasus and Sagitta. Look for the Little Fox inside the Summer Triangle, a famous asterism formed by the stars Vega in Lyra, Altair in Aquila, and Deneb in Cygnus.
Number of NGC Objects: 21
Number of double stars: 37
Notable deep sky objects: Dumbbell Nebula (M27), the first planetary nebula discovered, NGC 7052, a large elliptical galaxy, Brocchi’s Cluster, and PSR B1919+21, the first pulsar to be discovered.
Origin: Vulpecula was another of the constellations created by Hevelius, who named it either Vulpecula cum ansere, or Vulpecula et Anser, meaning “The Little Fox with the Goose”. Subsequent reshuffling of the constellations by various authorities caused the constellation to be broken up into two separate entities; named Vulpecula, and Anser. However, further reshuffling later merged the two constellations again, creating Vulpecula as we know it today.