CHAPTER ONE concluded...
Filling the remaining gaps
As the accuracy of astronomical observations improved and fainter stars were
charted, the opportunities grew for innovators to introduce new constellations
even among the area of sky known to the ancient Greeks. Ten more constellations
were introduced later in the 17th century by the Polish astronomer Johannes
Hevelius (1611–87), filling the remaining gaps in the northern sky. These were listed in his
star catalogue dated 1687 and depicted on his accompanying star atlas called
Firmamentum Sobiescianum, both published posthumously in 1690. Oddly, Hevelius insisted on measuring
star positions with the naked eye even though he possessed telescopes for
observing the Moon and planets; many of his constellations were deliberately
faint as though he was boasting of the power of his eyesight. Of Hevelius’s inventions, seven are still accepted by astronomers (see Table 3). The
rejected three were Cerberus, Mons Maenalus, and Triangulum Minus (see Chapter 4).
On his return to France in 1754, Lacaille presented a map of the southern skies
to the French Royal Academy of Sciences which included 14 new constellations of his own invention (see Table 4). An engraved version of the map was published in the Academy’s Mémoires in 1756 and Lacaille’s new constellations were rapidly accepted by other astronomers.
Whereas Keyser and de Houtman had mostly named their constellations after exotic
animals, Lacaille commemorated instruments of science and the arts, with the
exception of Mensa, named after the Table Mountain under which he had carried
out his observations. His full catalogue, and a revised map with the names of
his new constellations in Latin, was published posthumously in 1763 under the
title Coelum Australe Stelliferum. In his catalogue, Lacaille divided up the unwieldy constellation Argo Navis,
the ship, into the subsections Carina, Puppis, and Vela that astronomers still
use as separate constellations. As well as creating 14 new constellations,
Lacaille eliminated a pre-existing one – Robur Carolinum, Charles’s Oak, introduced by the Englishman Edmond Halley in 1678 to honour his monarch King Charles II.
All those from Lacaille’s time onwards who gerrymandered the constellations did so without lasting
success, but there were plenty of astronomers who tried to leave their mark on
the sky. Constellation mania had reached its height by 1801 when the German
astronomer Johann Elert Bode (1747–1826) published his immense star atlas, Uranographia, containing over 100 different constellations; but by then astronomers realized
that things had gone too far, and during the ensuing century this number was
eroded by a process of natural wastage. In 1899 the American historian R. H.
Allen summed up the prevailing situation in his book Star Names and Their Meaning: ‘From 80 to 90 constellations may be considered as now more or less acknowledged’.
The final 88
The matter was settled once and for all by astronomy’s newly founded governing body, the International Astronomical Union (IAU). At
its first General Assembly in 1922, the IAU officially adopted the list of 88
constellations covering the entire sky that we use today. (For more information
on all 88 constellations and how the final choice came to be made see here.)
One serious deficiency remained, though: there were still no generally agreed
boundaries to the constellations. Since Bode’s time cartographers had drawn freehand lines snaking between constellation
figures, but these were arbitrary and varied from atlas to atlas. On behalf of
the IAU a Belgian astronomer, Eugène Delporte (1882–1955), drew up a definitive list of boundaries for the 88 constellations.
For consistency with the earlier work of the American astronomer Benjamin
Apthorp Gould (1824–96), who in 1877 had published boundaries for the southern constellations in his
atlas called Uranometria Argentina, Delporte drew his boundaries along lines of right ascension and declination
for the year 1875. The boundaries zig-zagged to ensure that all named variable
stars remained within the constellations they were already assigned to.
Delporte also modified some of Gould’s boundaries, particularly in places where he had used diagonal lines.
Delporte’s work, approved by the IAU at its meeting in 1928 and published in 1930 in a
book called Délimitation Scientifique des Constellations, amounts to an international treaty on the demarcation of the sky, to which
astronomers throughout the world have conformed ever since. Constellations are
now regarded not as star patterns but as precisely defined areas of sky, rather
like countries on Earth. Unlike the map of the Earth, though, the map of the
sky is unlikely to change.
Official boundaries to the constellations were fixed in 1930 by a Belgian astronomer, Eugène Delporte, acting on behalf of the International Astronomical Union. Here is
his chart for part of the northern sky, including Cassiopeia and Andromeda,
from Délimitation Scientifique des Constellations. The constellation boundaries follow
circles of right ascension (the equivalent of longitude in the sky) and
parallels of declination (the celestial equivalent of latitude). Mouseover the
picture to see the boundary of Cassiopeia highlighted. In this new and more
scientific depiction of the sky, the old constellation figures have gone for
good. (Author’s collection)
THE STAR CATALOGUE AND ATLAS
OF JOHANNES HEVELIUS
Johannes Hevelius (1611–87),
compiler of the last major star
catalogue to be made with
Johannes Hevelius was a wealthy brewer from Danzig, now Gdańsk, Poland. In the
1640s he set out to enlarge and improve upon the star catalogue of the Danish
astronomer Tycho Brahe. Hevelius observed from a platform over the roof of his
house with naked-eye instruments such as a quadrant and sextant, assisted from
1663 by his second wife, Elizabeth (c.1646/7–c.1693). In 1679 a fire destroyed much of the building but his precious catalogue
was saved. This, along with his star atlas, was in the process of being printed
when Hevelius died in 1687. Elizabeth supervised its final publication in 1690.
Hevelius’s master work came in three parts: an introduction called Prodromus Astronomiae, which included descriptions of new constellations he had invented; the
catalogue of 1,564 stars, called Catalogus Stellarum Fixarum; and the star atlas, Firmamentum Sobiescianum. Seven of the constellations introduced by Hevelius are still accepted and are
listed in Table 3 (above left). Of these, Scutum had already been published in
1684 to honour the King of Poland who had helped Hevelius with rebuilding his
observatory after the destructive fire. The remainder had been invented by
1687, the date on the printed catalogue, even though they were not published
until 1690. Three additional Hevelius constellations shown on his star charts – Cerberus, Mons Maenalus, and Triangulum Minus – were later dropped by other astronomers.
Nicolas Louis de Lacaille (1713–62), surveyor of the southern skies.
© Observatoire de Paris.
FROM August 1751 to July 1752 Lacaille observed the southern skies from the rear
of a house near Table Bay at the Cape of Good Hope, using a telescope of a mere
13.5 mm (half an inch) aperture mounted on a 3-ft quadrant. With this basic
equipment he diligently compiled accurate observations of some 9,800 stars
between the Tropic of Capricorn and the south celestial pole. He marked 1,930
naked-eye stars on a planisphere which he presented to the French Academy of Sciences in 1754; this was
published in their Mémoires two years later along with a preliminary catalogue titled Table des ascensions droites et des déclinaisons apparentes des étoiles australes. Lacaille’s planisphere included the 14 new constellations he invented to accommodate the otherwise unadopted stars he listed. His final
catalogue, Coelum Australe Stelliferum, containing 1,942 entries was published posthumously in 1763. It included the
same planisphere as before although this time with the constellation names in
Latin rather than French and the stars identified with Greek and Roman letters.
In both his initial and final catalogues Lacaille divided the stars of Argo
into three parts – the keel, the stern, and the sails – but his charts still showed it as a single figure.