Most of today’s constellations are old, tracing their origins back to the ancient Greeks and Romans in the first centuries of the First Millennium A.D. The rest were added later, mostly in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, largely to populate the sky too far south to be visible from the cradle of Western civilization.
When the International Astronomical Union finalized the list to the 88 recognized today, dozens of small, faint constellations (many were proposed relatively recently) didn’t make the cut.
Among these extinct constellations were the Reindeer and the Harvest Keeper, nestled together near the crooked “W” asterism of Cassiopeia, currently visible midway up from the northeast horizon at 9 p.m.
As recondite as they seem, these constellations adhered to a post-classical tradition of creating constellations to commemorate the Age of Enlightenment.
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“Custos Messium,” Latin for “harvest keeper,” was actually a pun honoring Charles Messier, a prolific French comet hunter of the late 1700s. Its location coincides with the first appearance of comet C/1774 P1 which, although observed by Messier, was not among his 13 discoveries.
The Reindeer, “Rangifer” (again, Latin), honors Pierre de Maupertuis’s 1736 Lapland expedition to settle a controversy over Earth’s shape. Maupertuis calculated that Earth should be slightly oblate (bulging at the equator), while Jacques Cassini (son of Giovanni Cassini, discoverer of Saturn’s rings) believed it to be prolate (bulging at the poles). By measuring the length of one degree of latitude along the ground in a locale far removed from his native France, Maupertuis was proven right.
Despite their noble origins, it’s not hard to see why these two constellations were rejected by the IAU. Unless you’re observing from a dark location, far from city lights, on a moonless night, they occupy an area all but devoid of naked-eye stars.
Next column: Interstellar interlopers.