Constellations Old and New

The celestial sphere is a jigsaw puzzle with 88 pieces. The oldest piece is arguably the constellation Ursa Major, The Great Bear. Based on historical writings, prehistoric art, and the knowledge that this group of stars represented a bear in many cultures scattered throughout the world leads scholars to believe that this constellation was first described around 11,000 B.C., perhaps earlier.

The newest constellations are the 17 listed in the table below. Thirteen of these were invented by French astronomer Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille (1713-1762) during his stay at the Cape of Good Hope in 1751 and 1752, and the other four (Puppis, Pyxis, Vela, and Carina) are portions of the ancient enormous constellation Argo Navis, described by Ptolemy (c. 100 – c. 170). Though all of these constellations reside completely in the southern hemisphere of the sky (and thus can be best observed in the southern hemisphere), all but two of them (Mensa and Octans) have a portion that rises above the southern horizon as seen from Tucson, however scant and brief.

Newest Constellations

Constellation Description Declination
Puppis The Stern (of Argo Navis) -51˚ to -11˚
Pyxis The Compass (of Argo Navis) -37˚ to -17˚
Fornax The Laboratory Furnace -40˚ to -24˚
Antlia The Air Pump -40˚ to -25˚
Sculptor The Sculptor's Workshop -39˚ to -25˚
Caelum The Sculptor's Chisel -49˚ to -27˚
Microscopium The Microscope -45˚ to -27˚
Vela The Sail (of Argo Navis) -57˚ to -37˚
Horologium The Pendulum Clock -67˚ to -40˚
Norma The Carpenter's Square -60˚ to -42˚
Pictor The Painter's Easel -64˚ to -43˚
Telescopium The Telescope -57˚ to -45˚
Carina The Keel (of Argo Navis) -76˚ to -51˚
Reticulum The Net -67˚ to -53˚
Circinus The Compasses -71˚ to -55˚
Mensa The Table Mountain -85˚ to -70˚
Octans The Octant -90˚ to -74˚

Which (mostly) northern constellations were added last? Around 70 years prior to Lacaille, Johannes Hevelius (1611-1687) described the seven constellations in the table below. These constellations were first published posthumously in 1690.

Newest More Northerly Constellations

Constellation Description Declination
Lynx The Lynx +33˚ to +62˚
Lacerta The Lizard +35˚ to +57˚
Canes Venatici The Hunting Dogs +28˚ to +52˚
Leo Minor The Lion Cub +23˚ to +41˚
Vulpecula The Fox +19˚ to +29˚
Sextans The Sextant -12˚ to +6˚
Scutum The Shield -16˚ to -4˚

Let us now return to the oldest constellation, Ursa Major. The earliest extant literary work describing the constellations, including Ursa Major, is Phainómena by the Greek didactic poet Aratus (c. 315 BC – 240 BC). Phainómena is based on an earlier work by the Greek astronomer and mathematician Eudoxus of Cnidus (c. 408 BC – c. 355 BC), now lost. Earlier, the Greek poets Homer and Hesiod (~700 BC) mentioned the constellations, and we know that the Babylonians had a well-developed system of constellations (~2000 BC), as did the Sumerians even earlier (~4000 BC), later assimilated by the Greeks.

Here is what Aratus says in Phainómena about Ursa Major, in context.

The numerous stars, scattered in different directions, sweep all alike across the sky every day continuously for ever. The axis, however, does not move even slightly from its place, but just stays for ever fixed, holds the earth in the centre evenly balanced, and rotates the sky itself. Two poles terminate it at the two ends; but one is not visible, while the opposite one in the north is high above the horizon. On either side of it two Bears wheel in unison, and so they are called the Wagons. They keep their heads for ever pointing to each other's loins, and for ever they move with shoulders leading, aligned towards the shoulders, but in opposite directions. If the tale is true, these Bears ascended to the sky from Crete by the will of great Zeus, because when he was a child then in fragrant Lyctus near Mount Ida, they deposited him in a cave and tended him for the year, while the Curetes of Dicte kept Cronus deceived. Now one of the Bears men call Cynosura by name, the other Helice. Helice is the one by which Greek men at sea judge the course to steer their ships, while Phoenicians cross the sea relying on the other. Now the one is clear and easy to identify, Helice, being visible in all its grandeur as soon as night begins; the other is slight, yet a better guide to sailors, for it revolves entirely in a smaller circle: so by it the Sidonians sail the straightest course.

Between the two Bears, in the likeness of a river, winds a great wonder, the Dragon, writhing around and about at enormous length; on either side of its coil the Bears move, keeping clear of the dark-blue ocean. It reaches over one of them with the tip of its tail, and intercepts the other with its coil. The tip of its tail ends level with the head of the Bear Helice, and Cynosura keeps her head within its coil. The coil winds past her very head, goes as far as her foot, then turns back again and runs upward. In the Dragon's head there is not just a single star shining by itself, but two on the temples and two on the eyes, while one below them occupies the jaw-point of the awesome monster. Its head is slanted and looks altogether as if it is inclined towards the tip of Helice's tail: the mouth and the right temple are in a very straight line with the tip of the tail. The head of the Dragon passes through the point where the end of settings and the start of risings blend with each other.

We’re on a Collision Course with a Gas Cloud

Smith Cloud

A giant cloud of mostly hydrogen gas with enough material to make over a million suns is heading towards our Milky Way at a speed of 45 miles per second. Called the Smith Cloud (after Gail Bieger-Smith who discovered it in 1963), this 9,800 × 3,300 ly high velocity cloud (HVC) is about 40,000 ly distant and is expected to slam into our Milky Way galaxy in about 27 million years, causing the birth of many new stars a quarter-way round the galaxy from us.

Smith Cloud is located in the constellation Aquila, the Eagle

The Smith Cloud is located in the constellation Aquila, and has an apparent diameter around 11° across its long axis. It is only visible using radio telescopes (spin-flip transition of neutral atomic hydrogen), or by detecting hydrogen absorption lines Doppler shifted and superimposed upon the spectra of more distant stars that are shining through the cloud.

The origin of the Smith Cloud is unknown. It may have originated within the Milky Way galaxy itself, or it may be extragalactic. The upcoming collision may not be the first time the Smith Cloud has encountered the disc of the Milky Way. It may be embedded in a large halo of dark matter which would have kept the cloud from being completely disrupted during any past encounters.

The Smith Cloud is a great example of an object that would never have been discovered were it not for radio astronomy. Felix J. Lockman, who has published extensively on the Smith Cloud, has created Radio Astronomy: Observing the Invisible Universe for The Great Courses. Dr. Lockman’s engaging lecture style, his clear explanations, and thorough knowledge of the subject matter makes this the perfect introduction to the subject. Highly recommended!

Incidentally, Jay Lockman discovered a region in Ursa Major that is relatively free of neutral hydrogen gas and dust, thus affording a clearer view into the distant universe. It is named, appropriately, the Lockman Hole.


Alig, C. et al. “Simulating the Impact of the Smith Cloud.” The Astrophysical Journal 869 (2018): 1-6.
arXiv:1901.01639 [astro-ph.GA]

Hu, Y. et al. “Magnetic field morphology in interstellar clouds with the velocity gradient technique.” Nature Astronomy (2019): 1-7.
arXiv:2002.09948 [astro-ph.GA]

Lockman, F.. “Accretion Onto the Milky Way: The Smith Cloud.” Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union 11 (2015): 9 – 12.
arXiv:1511.05423 [astro-ph.GA]

M81 and M82 from HST

The galaxy pair M81 and M82 in Ursa Major must rank near the top of the list of best-loved objects for any Northern Hemisphere amateur astronomer.  So, to see such a familiar object as these in breathtaking Hubble Space Telescope detail is thrilling indeed:

Messier 81 from the Hubble Space Telescope – click on the image for a larger view

Messier 82 from the Hubble Space Telescope – click on the image for a larger view

M81 and M82 lie little more than a moon-width apart in the constellation Ursa Major, 11.8 million and 11.5 million light years, respectively, from Earth.  Check out this pretty pair with either binoculars or a telescope any clear evening during the next few days.  Both galaxies transit the meridian on April 14 at the end of evening twilight, so this is the perfect time to observe them at their highest in the sky.  You can find Bode’s Galaxy (M81) and the “Silver Sliver” (M82) by drawing an imaginary diagonal across the bowl of the Big Dipper, opposite (rather than along) the handle, and extending the diagonal beyond the bowl almost as far as the two bowl stars are apart. Or, using the chart I created below, draw an imaginary line between Dubhe and 24 UMa, then go about four-fifths of the way to 24 UMa.  M81 & M82 lie about 0.4° (a little less than a moon-width) perpendicular to that line on the Polaris side.  Bingo, you’ve got ’em!

Skyline to M81 (and M82)