Starlight Memories 1

by Philip Steffey


In July, 1991 the Daytona Beach chapter of the Central Florida Astronomical Society began meeting monthly in the planetarium of the D.B. Museum of Arts and Sciences. Taking advantage of the excellent star projector and the cooperation of the facility's director, Roger Hoefer, we made constellation study a part of most meetings for two years. In the opening presentation I mentioned several reasons why amateur astronomers should learn to recognize at least the conspicuous constellations: they define areas of the celestial sphere as the continents and large islands define areas of Earth's surface, and thus provide quick references for the positions of telescopic objects (e.g. galaxies) and moving or transient naked-eye ones (planets, comets); they provide training in star-pattern recognition that is necessary to identify special stars or starlike objects (asteroids, quasars) in telescopic fields from detailed charts; and over half of the 88 star figures visualized in modern, Western astronomy represent cultural developments such as hunting and agriculture by our ancient or prehistoric ancestors.

This first presentation, in September, dealt mostly with Pegasus, the upside-down Flying Horse in the ancient Greek myth of the heroic deeds of Perseus, then climbing up the eastern evening sky. Even though the figure we saw was artificial, it brought back fond memories to me. For Pegasus had been the first constellation I had learned, by myself, in a real sky long ago and far away. Following is a little background.

I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan between the beginning of World War II and the dawning of spaceflight--the launching of the Sputniks by the U.S.S.R. After the war, the city grew to become All-American for its size. It had a four-season climate and the environment for all sorts of natural recreational activities or hobbies. The economy was diverse and the cost of living was pegged to what working-class families could afford. Serious crime was very rare. Culture was "in," including two four-year colleges, very good grade schools, and first-rate music and dramatics organizations. My father Virgil worked as a war-plant machinist in lieu of military service, then returned to his main trade as a layer of floor coverings when the war ended and was able to buy a house in a nice neighborhood about three miles south of Kalamazoo's business center. Trees and rather closely-spaced houses made the yard imperfect for stargazing, but abundant clear skies and unnoticable artificial light pollution compensated: the summer Milky Way was spectacular and the dimmer winter section was easily visible.

My interest in astronomy developed in the late 1940's by a circuitous route described in the next article of this series. Suffice it here that by the summer of 1951 I was "hooked.

Learning Some Constellations the Hard Way

Late one warm, splendidly clear evening in August 1951 I sat on the back steps of our house in Kalamazoo, trying to identify the constellation Pegasus from the main star chart in an issue of Sky and Telescope acquired a few weeks earlier at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. I was puzzled that the square-shaped figure in view didn't match the chart's representation very well. It had three instead of four nearly equally bright stars and no bright "nose" star to the west at the right distance. High above was a very bright star that could have been Altair, except that west of it was an even brighter one.

Frustrated to the point of quitting and going to bed, I took a last look at the chart and suddenly realized I had been facing northeast, not east! The back of the house faced north so I should have known better than to expect to see the eastern sky well from my perch. And as a Boy Scout I knew the significance of the geographic directions. Shame on me for a faulty sense of direction due to sheer carelessness!

Sure enough, the chart showed a constellation well up in the northeast then which included a square figure. But it wasn't Pegasus. I had been viewing Cassiopeia, a much smaller constellation, for a hour. In just five more minutes, from the backyard, I found the Great Square and the rest of the upside-down Flying Horse. So, I also had lacked a sense of angular distances in the sky and needed to acquire it. But here I was in distinguished company. Many years later I was fascinated by Leslie Peltier's confession, in his book Starlight Nights , of his repeated failure in early 1918 to identify R Leonis in his small refracting telescope because he didn't know the real angular field size of the eyepiece and hence couldn't make sense of his special chart of the variable star's field.

This ego-jarring experience was an effective teacher. In a couple more, brief stargazing sessions I identified several more constellations and their brightest stars, using Pegasus and Cassiopeia as references and my now miraculously good senses of angular distance and direction in the sky. Westward were the prominent figures Aquila, Capricornus, Cygnus and Lyra; Altair, Deneb and Vega were mine for a lifetime! Sagittarius and Scorpius, very low due to my latitude of 42 degrees North, were let go till the next summer. Eastward were constellations that would join the Flying Horse and Seated Queen in dominating the skies of fast-approaching autumn: Andromeda, Perseus, Auriga and Taurus. Capella became the first among the very bright stars that I recognized from a deliberate search, without screwing up, and thereafter my best friend in its class. Many years later, in Florida, it would repay me for knowing it so long and so well, by signaling with its early evening rising the end of each hot, humid summer and the beginning of pleasant conditions and much clearer skies.

There were many more constellations yet to learn, including some spectacular ones. In September, 1951 I was distracted from this activity by the acquisition and use of a cheap and nearly worthless telescope. Then, in early October, a look out a south-facing window in our house an hour or so before dawn got me back on track. Glaring back at me was the Mighty Hunter! But this event deserves a separate article.

I hope that readers recognize some useful tips in my first, wayward encounter with Pegasus about learning constellations. Appropriate charts are a must, and help from knowledgable people in a planetarium or under a real sky is OK, but in the end do it yourself, prepared to make mistakes and even to temporarily fail. Start with a sense of at least approximate geographic directions and of angular distances, but expect surprises in translating the latter to the starry sky. When you do succeed at an identification, it will become a personal treasure, boost your confidence, and increase your ability to learn other constellations and bright stars.

*Revised May 1997, September 2005


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