Johann Bayer’s southern star chart

Johann Bayer's southern star chart

Chart 49 from Johann Bayer’s Uranometria (1603) was the first time that the 12 new constellations around the south celestial pole appeared in print. This area of sky had previously been constellation-free because it was too far south for the ancient Greeks to see. The first reliable observations of the stars in this region were made by Dutch seafarers at the end of the 16th century. Clockwise from left, the constellations are: Phoenix, Grus, Tucana (below Grus), Indus, Pavo, Apus, Triangulum Australe, Musca, Chamaeleon, Volans, and Dorado. Hydrus snakes across the centre left. Handwritten annotations on the chart were made by a former owner. 

Image courtesy the Linda Hall Library, Kansas City, Missouri.

JOHANN BAYER’s Uranometria atlas of 1603 was not only the first great celestial atlas, it was also the first to cover the entire sky. What made it so was the inclusion of a special chart covering the area around the south celestial pole (above). Bayer’s south polar chart depicted the 12 new constellations that had been invented only a few years earlier from observations made by the navigator Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser and some colleagues on the first Dutch trading expedition to the East Indies, known as the Eerste Schipvaart.

For European astronomers at the turn of the 17th century, Bayer’s chart of this hitherto invisible area of sky must have been as sensational as were the first photographs of the far side of the Moon in more recent times. 

Uranometria devoted an individual chart to each of the 48 classical Greek constellations listed byPtolemy in the Almagest, but Chart 49 differs by lumping all the new Southern Dozen together. This was reasonable enough, since no catalogue of their component stars had yet been published.

The observations made on the Eerste Schipvaart had gone directly to the Dutch cartographer Petrus Plancius in Amsterdam and these stars, divided into the 12 new southern constellations, first appeared on a globe produced jointly by him and Jodocus Hondius in 1598. (These were all naked-eye stars, of course, since this was still over a decade before the invention of the telescope.) Hondius published revised versions of this globe in 1600 and 1601. The Dutch historian Elly Dekker has demonstrated that Bayer almost certainly copied the positions of the southern stars from these two Hondius globes, as he had no original observations to work from.

Bayer’s atlas was far more accessible than individually made and expensive globes, so his Chart 49 would have been the main way that these new constellations were introduced to a wider public, to the extent that Bayer was sometimes credited with their invention, which he assuredly was not. (Two decades later another German, Jacob Bartsch, was similarly credited with inventing constellations that were actually the work of others.)

What’s on the chart

At the centre of Bayer’s Chart 49 is the south celestial pole for the year 1600. Lower down is the south ecliptic pole. Circles of 23.5° radius encompass each pole, while radial lines extend outwards from them at 30 degree intervals. At right is the stippled band of the Milky Way. The two Magellanic Clouds, termed Nubecula Major and Nubecula Minor, are depicted as cumulus-type clouds in the lower left quadrant.

Most of the 12 new constellations are concentrated towards the left of the chart. This is because the effect of precession had moved the south celestial pole towards Centaurus since ancient Greek times. As a result, the ‘zone of invisibility’ had shifted noticeably since the Almagest was compiled.

In all, 140 stars are plotted on Bayer’s chart of the southern sky. Of these, 121 are gathered into the dozen new constellations (the actual number should have been 122 but he accidentally missed a star out of Chamaeleon) while another five form a southern extension to Eridanus that ends with the star marked Acarnar, known to us as Achernar. This southern extension can also be seen on Bayer’s individual chart of Eridanus, on which he also assigned Greek letters to these stars. Twelve more stars on Chart 49 are left unformed, i.e. not part of any constellation. At top centre and top right are two Ptolemaic stars labelled ‘Pes dexter Sagittarii’ (right foot of Sagittarius) and ‘Pes laevus Centauri’ (left foot of the Centaur), i.e. Beta Sagittarii and Alpha Centauri; these were presumably included for reference.

Actually, two of the ‘stars’ on Bayer’s chart are not really stars at all: one, in a coil of Hydrus beneath the claw of Tucana, is the globular cluster we now know as 47 Tucanae; and the other, between the fin of Dorado and the Large Magellanic Cloud (which Bayer called Nubecula Major) is 30 Doradus, otherwise known as the Tarantula Nebula.

Unlike his charts of the individual Ptolemaic constellations, Bayer published no star catalogue to accompany his Chart 49. For a discussion of this chart and the identities of the stars on it, see my paper published in The Antiquarian Astronomer here.

Completing the picture

Bayer’s Chart 49 remained the definitive picture of the south polar constellation for the next three-quarters of a century until Edmond Halley produced his chart of the southern skies in 1678. Johannes Hevelius published a similar southern chart to Bayer’s, using Halley’s catalogue, in his Firmamentum Sobiescianum atlas published in 1690. The picture was completed by the French astronomer Nicolas Louis de Lacaille who reshaped some of the Southern Dozen and populated the intervening gaps with 14 more constellations of his own devising in the 1750s.