By Peter Becker
Arrangement of the stars over our heads at night take on an amazing variety of outlines, free to thousands of years of imagination by cultures around the world. While the stars remain blissfully unaware, we trace out a menagerie of creatures, mythological beings and sundry accessories with abandon.
Constellations adorning the Celestial Sphere are a jumbled assortment from a draftsman's triangle to a peacock, from a bear to a lizard. Suffice it to further enjoy the two bears, a couple lions, a few lads and lasses, a doctor handling a snake and a lady's hairdo on a stick.
As the night wears on, you may watch the constellations parade from east to west.
There used to be a lot more; we no longer find on our current star maps a reindeer, a hot air balloon or (perhaps thankfully), a slug.
Thanks to a final decision of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 1929, we now have 88 constellations.
On a July evening looking north, Draco the Dragon is in good position, its head up high, its feet below and tucked behind the Little Dipper's bowl, and its long tail of stars arcing over the Little Dipper and dangling between the Big and Little Dippers.
The Dippers, by the way, are considered "asterisms," star patterns that are not officially constellations. They are actually part of constellations Ursa Major the Great Bear and Ursa Minor the Little Bear.
Similarly, look east for Cygnus the Swan. Its principal stars form a large cross, which is on its side as seen when rising in the eastern sky. The Swan's nickname is the Northern Cross.
Other notable constellations for July evenings include Scorpius the Scorpion low in the south, highlighted by a bright red-orange star, Antares; Bootes the Herdsman, up high in the southwest, with a bright orange-yellow star, Arcturus. Immediately left of Bootes and now high up in the south is Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown, appearing as a half-circle of stars. Its brightest is known as Gemma.
What about the slug? In 1754, English botanist and author John Hill devised a constellation, Limax the Slug. Its stars are found near the bright star Rigel in Orion.
Among other star connections attributed to Hill (none of them survived the IAU), were the constellations of the Eel, Spider, Toad, Tooth Shell, Shelfish, Sea Horse, Earthworm, Pangolin, Limpet, Rhinoceros Beetle Mussel, Tortoise, Stargazer Fish and Leech. He published them in a dictionary he entitled Urania.
Hill was a notable satirist and it is thought he may have been attempting to perpetrate a joke on astronomers.
Star maps showing the evening night sky for each month of the year are readily available in many public libraries and online.
Be sure to see planet Venus shining bright in the northwest after sunset. First quarter Moon is on July 15.
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Keep looking up!