Stargazers: A celestial menagerie in the spring sky

Look back into history and you'll find that just about every indigenous culture on Earth developed its own unique set of constellations, and many were passed down to later generations. Modern Western stargazers inherited those created primarily by the ancient Greeks and early European explorers and astronomers.

To produce a more standardized system for worldwide use, in 1922, the International Astronomical Union, or IAU, formally divided the heavens into 88 separate regions of varying shapes and sizes, each a "constellation." Among these we find represented 29 objects, 42 animals, 16 people and one half-animal/half-human (a centaur).

I think it's remarkable that after dark during mid-May we can see in our northwestern sky nearly one-fifth of all the animal constellations. But before you frustrate yourself searching for images of lions and tigers and bears, remember that constellations are merely areas of the sky and not celestial pictures. So with this in mind, let's head outdoors shortly after dark this week to see if we can locate all eight of these celestial groupings.

Surely, the most famous are the stars of Ursa Major, the great bear. More easily recognized as the Big Dipper, this group now stands high in the northwestern sky after dark. To its left lies the large constellation of Leo, the lion. And between Leo and Ursa Major lies the much tinier Leo Minor, the little lion. Looks more like an arrow to me.

To the Big Dipper's right we find Ursa Minor, the little bear, also known as the Little Dipper. The end of its tail (or handle) is marked by Polaris, the North Star. Finding Polaris isn't difficult. Simply follow to the right the two stars at the end of the Big Dipper's bowl and they'll point right toward this star.

And winding its way partly between the big and little bears we see the sinuous constellation of Draco, the dragon, a horrible creature from ancient Greek mythology that guarded a valuable sacred spring.

If you have trouble finding these five constellations, get ready for a real challenge because the remaining three may be even more difficult. This is partly because they're very faint and obscure and partly because some now lie very low to the horizon.

Directly beneath Ursa Major lies a string of stars known as Lynx, the ... well, uh, lynx. This constellation together with Leo and Leo Minor make up all the cats represented in the heavens.

To the left of Lynx lies Cancer, the crab. Normally one of the faintest constellations in the heavens, its stars will be severely dimmed by its extremely low altitude.

Finally, look to the right of Lynx and you should spot Camelopardalis. This has to be one of the most obscure constellations in all the heavens. It was probably the 16th-century Dutch theologian, cartographer and astronomer Petrus Plancius who conjured this one up, though some believe it might have been named by the German astronomer Jacob Bartsch, who published Plancius' star maps in a 1624 constellation book. While this constellation's name suggests that it represents a camel — and it even kind of looks like one — it's not. It's a giraffe!

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