Obsolete constellations may be gone, but they're not forgotten. We revisit their brief glories and learn how to find them in the 21st-century sky.
I suppose all constellations will be obsolete someday, replaced by revisionists of the distant future or simply so distorted by the motions of their individual stars that retooling will be essential. For now, we've got 88, and that's the way it'll be for a long, long time.
Those 88 survived a lengthy winnowing process that ended in 1930 when their borders were set for good by the International Astronomical Union.
The carcasses of constellations that might have been were discarded along the way, but not before these "might have beens" had their day, starring in a handful of old-time sky atlases during the acme of celestial cartography in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Seeing and finding patterns is one of humanity's greatest traits, so it was only natural to look for new ways to connect stars in parts of the sky that were still wild territory between existing groups. Because now-obsolete constellations occupied relatively blank spots in the sky, they were comprised of mostly fainter stars, as the bright ones had already been used for the more familiar constellations.
Astronomers continued to use ancient myths as the basis for the new star patterns but also added additional, more modern, references, many of which related to then-current technology, such as: Machina Electrica, the Electrical Machine; Globus Aerostaticus, the Hot-Air Balloon; and Officina Typographica, the Printing Shop. Given a free hand in today's world, I'm certain Computatrum Novum and Telephonium Portabile would be part of our celestial scenery.
Others, like Edmond Halley of comet fame, used the opportunity for political favor and advantage. Perhaps this was his motivation for creating the short-lived Robur Carolinum (Charles's Oak) in 1769, naming the figure for the British King, Charles II. Few heard the thud when it was chopped down 75 years later by French star mapper Nicolas Louis de Lacaille.
German astronomer Julius Schiller attempted to rid the night sky of pagan influences when he created the atlas Coelum Stellatum Christianum with figures based entirely on the Bible. Ursa Major became St. Peter's Boat and Corona Borealis, the Crown of Thorns.
At least two dozen defunct groups including Bufo, the Toad, and Felis, the Cat, prowl the pages of books and atlases drawn up by famous celestial mapmakers like Johannes Hevelius and Johann Bode. But they didn't make the ultimate cut due to their obscurity, lack of good public relations, or inappropriate politics.
Most of us have a faint familiarity with two former constellations: Argo Navis, the Ship Argo, and Quadrans Muralis, the Mural Quadrant, where the radiant of the annual Quadrantid meteor shower is located. Argo was so large and unwieldy it was split into the three current constellations: Carina, the Keel; Vela, the Sails; and Puppis, the Poop Deck (or Stern).
I've always pined for some of the others, if only because they represent a few of my favorite animals — Noctua, the Owl being one. I thought it would be fun to resurrect them from obscurity like the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. By tracking them down in the present day (night!), we can pay homage to an obscure bit of astronomical history, as well as honor the memory of astronomers who tried but failed to convince the world it needed a rooster, reindeer, and royal oak in the night sky.