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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March 19, 2013 - 1:00pm
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