Sunday, August 15, 2010

Scutum the Shield

Not all of the constellations are ancient. In fact many of them were named in the 1600s for scientific instruments or newly discovered, exotic animals. One of the strangest ones is called Scutum the Shield. The Shield is not very bright but can found between Ophiuchus and Aquila and above Sagittarius.

Scutum was originally named "Sobieski's Shield" by the astronomer Johannes Hevelius. Hevelius loved charting the faintest of stars and created 7 constellations overlooked by the ancient Greeks. He was also known for having a 145 foot long telescope - one of the longest telescopes ever made. After Hevelius' observatory burned down, the King of Poland, John Sobieski, financed the rebuilding of a new observatory. Hevelius was so moved that he honored his patron by naming a bit of sky (though mostly empty of stars) after him.

Upon closer examination (with the aid of a telescope), there are tons of stars in Scutum. The Shield lies in a particularly think swath of the Milky Way. Just beyond 20/20 vision these stars are near the heart of our galaxy.

Not all of Hevelius' constellations made it to modern star charts. He named one group of stars after Cerberus, the Three-Headed Hound of the Underworld. How could the astronomers leave "Fluffy" out of the sky!?!