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10 Constellations that Never Caught On

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In 1908, Harvard published the Revised Harvard Photometry Catalog, and in doing so, established a list of 88 constellations that would later be made official to the world’s astronomers. One result: obscure patches of dim stars designated the Microscope, the Swordfish, and the Compass (as in, the thing you draw a circle with) now had the same status as legendary groups like Orion and Cassiopeia. And if some of those sound odd, here are 10 more that didn’t quite make the cut.  

1. Globus Aerostaticus, the Balloon

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The Balloon was created in 1798 by French astronomer Jérôme Lalande to celebrate this modern advent in transportation.  While a scientific breakthrough at the time, the balloon’s fame as a constellation lasted about as long as Falcon Heene’s.  

Try to find it!  The Balloon once sailed in the space between Capricorn and the Southern Fish.

2. Machina Electrica, the Electrical Generator

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Having apparently run out of Greek mythological figures, a surprising number of constellations—even the ones that endure today—are named after then-novel gadgetry. So a drab patch of sky became an electrical generator. However, it never quite sparked the imaginations of astronomers, and the Electrical Generator was scrapped…a decision that might seem regrettable when the next major weather event hits.

Try to find it! Machina Electrica was situated between the Furnace and the Sculptor’s Studio.  So, apparently, that section of the sky was basically a ratty loft.

3. Cancer Minor, the Lesser Crab

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Several constellations have minor counterparts. Whether you see Bears or Dippers in the northern sky, we can all agree that there’s a big one and a small one. There’s a Major and Minor Dog too (the Minor Dog being so minor, it’s comprised of two stars). There’s even an astrological spin-off—Leo Minor—and this might explain why Cancer Minor was even conceived. Nonetheless, the Little Crab never caught on. Which is probably for the best, lest someone had been tempted to create Virgo Minor.

Try to find it! It’s a small, arrow-shaped group to the left of Cancer, aiming right at it.

4. Musca Borealis, the Northern Fly

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As navigators began sailing south and charting the skies below the equator, there apparently proved to be more uncharted sky than ideas on how to designate it. Thus, the birth of the “southern” constellation, with fish, crowns and triangles all having southern twins. But it appears the night sky didn’t need two flies, and subsequent rebranding efforts including Apis (the Bee) and the Williamsburg-worthy Vespa (the Wasp) couldn’t keep this forlorn little bug from flying off into obscurity.

As for its cousin down south, Musca (nee Australis) buzzes around the pole to this day.

Try to find it! The Northern Fly was originally seen hovering near the rump of Aries, the Ram. Fitting.

5. Polophylax, the Guardian of the Pole

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Pity the South Pole. Unlike the north, with the world-famous North Star to designate it, the skies around the South Pole are basically an uninspiring collection of dim stars. In 1592, a Dutch astronomer named Petrus Plancius attempted to give some romance to the south with the introduction of Polophylax, the blue-robed guardian of the celestial South Pole. This proved to be a dud, so much so that the constellation was replaced by a Toucan and a Crane…by Plancius himself.

Try to find it! Follow your nose. Sorry, Toucan joke.

6. Limax, the Slug

At least some of Plancius’s creations endured. In terms of goofy ideas for constellations—and a .000 batting average—no one can match the output of renegade botanist and all-around rapscallion John Hill. When, in 1754, Hill published his star guide Urania (a book whose proper title rivals Fiona Apple album names for wordiness), he littered the sky with not just Limax (the “naked snail”), but an Earthworm, a Rhinoceros Beetle, an Anteater, a Toad and pretty much every other icky critter he could think of, creeping out little sisters everywhere. None endured.

Try to find it! Limax once slithered beneath the left foot of the noble Orion.

7. Gladii Electorales Saxonici, the Crossed Swords of Saxony

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This one was the creation of German astronomer and shoemaker Gottfried Kirch, as were a few long-forgotten orbs and scepters he’d dreamt up to honor some German royalty, in a failed bout of celestial butt-kissing. Still: Why some metal band hasn’t run with this name yet is beyond this author.

Try to find it! Pretty much right between Virgo and Libra...good news for you late September babies looking for a fun new sign.

8. Psalterium Georgii, the Lute of King George III

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Sucking up to noblemen and women with doomed constellations is a depressingly enduring tradition (see also Frederici’s Regalia, Herchel’s Telescope, Pontianowski’s Bull, the Bust of Christopher Columbus). Thankfully, it’s now much easier to just pay $75 to name a star after someone. Plus, it’s no less official than Psalterium Georgii ended up being.

Try to find it! Today, George’s Harp can be found floating in the northernmost part of the River Eridanus, along with a couple of beer cans and a discarded tire.

9.  Sciurus Volans, the Flying Squirrel

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“Hey, Rocky! Watch me pull a forgotten constellation out of my hat!” As the sky already had a different Volans at the time (in honor of the noble Flying Fish), this one had nothing up its sleeve.

Try to find it! If you can find the obscure Camelopardalis (the Giraffe) in the north sky, just look to its tail. And, yes, the night sky is probably the only place where it’s difficult to spot a giraffe.

10. Officina Typographica, the Printing Office

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Nope, not just a press, an entire office. And if your desk is any indication, you’d need half the stars in the Milky Way to accurately represent the clutter. Inspiring no one, the printing office was downsized out of existence, its former space now occupied by a unicorn.

Like the electrical generator (and a whole garage-full of others) this dim, shapeless tribute to modern technology was the brainchild of German astronomer Johann Bode...but if his creations strike you as failures, don’t feel too bad for him.  He had a little more luck coming up with names for planets, specifically Uranus.

Try to find it!  It was just to the east of Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.  Tough act to follow.

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Space
Here's Where You Can Watch a Livestream of Cassini's Final Moments
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It's been a road trip like no other. After seven years and 2.2 billion miles, the NASA orbiter Cassini finally arrived at the Saturn system on June 30, 2004. Ever since, it's been capturing and transmitting valuable data about the distant environment. From sending the Huygens probe to land on the moon Titan to witnessing hurricanes on both of the planet's poles, Cassini has informed more than 3000 scientific papers.

It's been as impressive a mission as any spacecraft has ever undertaken. And tomorrow, Cassini will perform one last feat: sacrificing itself to Saturn's intense atmosphere. Project scientists are deliberately plunging it into the planet in order to secure just a little more data—and to keep the spacecraft, which is running low on fuel, from one day colliding with a Saturnian moon that might harbor life.

Because it won't have time to store anything on its hard drive, Cassini will livestream its blaze of glory via NASA. The information will be composed mostly of measurements, since pictures would take too long to send. Instead, we'll get data about Saturn's magnetic field and the composition of its dust and gas.

"As we fly through the atmosphere, we are able to literally scoop up some molecules, and from those we can figure out the ground truth in Saturn’s atmosphere," Scott Edgington, a Cassini project scientist, told New Scientist. "Just like almost everything else in this mission, I expect to be completely surprised."

The action will kick off at 7 a.m. EDT on Friday, September 15. Scientists expect to say goodbye to Cassini less than an hour later. 

While you wait for Cassini's grand finale, you can check out some essential facts we've rounded up from Saturn experts. And keep your eyes peeled for a full recap of Cassini’s historic journey: Mental Floss will be in the control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, to offer a firsthand account of the craft's final moments in space. 

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Big Questions
What Are the Northern Lights?
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Over the centuries, many have gazed up at one of the Earth’s most fascinatingly beautiful natural wonders: the Northern Lights. In the past couple of weeks, some lucky American stargazers have gotten the chance to see them from their very own backyards—and could again this week, according to Thrillist. But what are they?

Before science was able to get a read on what exactly was happening in the night sky, ancient tribes had their own theories for what caused the jaw-dropping light show. Many early beliefs had roots in religion, such as that the light was a pathway souls traveled to reach heaven (Eskimo tribes) or that the light was an eternal battle of dead warriors (Middle-Age Europe). Early researchers were a bit more reasonable in their approximations, and most surrounded the idea of the reflection of sunlight off the ice caps. In 1619, Galileo Galilei named the lights the aurora borealis after Aurora, the Roman goddess of morning, after concluding they were a product of sunlight reflecting from the atmosphere.

Today, scientists have come to the general agreement that the lights are caused by the collision of electrically charged solar particles and atoms from our atmosphere. The energy from the collisions is released as light, and the reason it happens around the poles is because that's where the Earth’s magnetic field is the strongest. In 2008, a team at UCLA concluded that “when two magnetic field lines come close together due to the storage of energy from the sun, a critical limit is reached and the magnetic field lines reconnect, causing magnetic energy to be transformed into kinetic energy and heat. Energy is released, and the plasma is accelerated, producing accelerated electrons.”

"Our data show clearly and for the first time that magnetic reconnection is the trigger," said Vassilis Angelopoulos, a UCLA professor of Earth and Space Sciences. "Reconnection results in a slingshot acceleration of waves and plasma along magnetic field lines, lighting up the aurora underneath even before the near-Earth space has had a chance to respond. We are providing the evidence that this is happening."

The best time to see the Northern Lights is during the winter, due to the Earth’s position in relation to the sun (shorter days means darker night skies). And by the way, it’s not just the North Pole that puts on a show—there are Southern Lights, too. There are also aurora borealis on other planets—including Mars—so rest assured that future generations born “abroad” will not miss out on this spectacular feat of nature.

Haven’t seen them yet? Traditionally, the best places to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights are in Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greenland, northern Canada, and Alaska. Maybe you'll get lucky this week and sneak a peek from your very own window. Check out Aurorasaurus for regular updates on where they are showing.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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