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An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
  Night Sky

Enjoy the starry night skies
Be a considerate neighbor. Reduce nighttime glare. Shield your outside lights downward. Let the stars light up the night.

March 2014 night sky

—Charlie Christmann

A Look behind

If you have a clear, unobstructed, glare-free view of the southern horizon, try looking due south at about 10:00 p.m. mid-month, just above the horizon line. Low on the horizon is the small, dim constellation Vela. The name translates from Latin to “sail of a ship.” This small insignificant constellation is not what it once was.

All of the constellations from the time of Ptolemy, an Alexandrian astronomer, can be found in the book written around 130 A.D. called Almagest, except one. In the book, Ptolemy states that the oldest astronomical record he had was from Babylonia in the eighth century B.C. Many believe he also drew heavily from the second century B.C. Greek astronomer, Hipparchus, to describe the night sky constellations.

The Almagest lists twenty-one constellations in the northern hemisphere, twelve Zodiacal constellations and fifteen constellations in the southern hemisphere. One of those constellations in the south was named Argo Navis, the Argo Ship, representing the ship used by Jason and the Argonauts in Greek mythology. If Argo Navis were still a constellation today, it would be the largest in the night sky; much of it would be below the horizon as seen from New Mexico. Today, Hydra, the serpent, is the largest constellation at 1303 square degrees.

The original forty-eight classical constellations did not cover the entire sky. From ancient Greece, the extreme southern stars never rose above the horizon. That part of sky, the southern celestial void, was a blank on celestial maps until the 16th century. It was not until the last half of the 1500s that Dutch astronomer Plancius began to fill the southern void by creating two new constellations: Crux and Triangulus Antarcticus.

Through the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, astronomers invented many other constellations; most never caught on. German astronomer Johann Bode, in 1801, published a set of celestial maps with 99 constellations, including a static electricity machine, a hot air balloon, and a cat.

Finally, a group of astronomers formed the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 1919. Their first task was to sort out the jumble of constellations, creating the currently official 88 constellations seen today. In the process, Argo Navis, considered much too large, was split into four: Carina (the keel, or the hull, of the ship), Puppis (the poop deck, or stern), Vela (the sails), and Pyxis (the compass, formerly ship’s mast).

So, this month, as you look at Vela, it is like looking behind you in the rear window of your car. As our solar system orbits the Milky Way, Vela points to the place from where we came.

New Moons

If you recall, January of this year had two New Moons and February had none. Because February is so close to the lunar cycle length (i.e. short), March begins with what, in other years, would be February’s New Moon and ends with a second New Moon.

Rio Rancho Astronomical Society meets

On March 7, the Rio Rancho Astronomical Society will host its monthly meeting and stargaze at the Rainbow Park Observatory, 301 Southern Boulevard, SE, Rio Rancho. Parking is available in a parking lot in front of Rainbow Pool. The observatory is located behind Rainbow Pool. The meeting will start at 7:00 p.m., and a public stargaze will follow, weather permitting. Telescopes provided by members of the Rio Rancho Astronomical Society will show views of Jupiter as well as various nebula, star clusters, and galaxies.

For more information, visit our website at or call 220-5492.

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