Stargazers | Knowing celestial second bananas


Back in the days of burlesque, there was a skit involving three comedians in which the one who delivered the punch line to a very funny joke was given a banana. From this came the term "top banana," someone who reaches the top of his or her group.

The term "second banana" also originated from this skit, meaning the comedian who supported the top banana. But second bananas are seldom remembered. For example, who knows the second person to reach the South Pole? Or the second person to build a lightbulb? Or the second person to walk on the moon? OK, if you're reading these words you probably know that one, but you get my point.

Second place, unfortunately, is often forgotten. And so it is with stars and constellations.

Though we often think of constellations as celestial pictures, they are actually defined as areas that divide the sky, much as states divide the U.S. And just like states, all constellations are different sizes and shapes, and all fit together like a celestial jigsaw puzzle. Every point in the U.S., for example, is part of a state (except for the District of Columbia), and every point in the sky is part of a constellation.

Just as you may not know the second-smallest and second-largest states, my guess is you don't know the second-smallest and second-largest constellations, either. I certainly didn't until I looked them up. Fortunately, these stellar second bananas are both in our sky during late evening hours right now (otherwise this would be a really short column).

This week, late at night in the southwestern sky, we can find the second-largest of all constellations: Virgo, the maiden. It encompasses about 3 percent of the entire celestial sphere and is marked by the bright, white star Spica.

Throughout history, Virgo seems to have represented just about every major female deity. In Babylonian mythology, she was known as Ishtar, goddess of love, fertility and war, or "Queen of the Stars." To the ancient Romans, she was Ceres, the goddess of growth and harvest. In ancient Egypt, the stars we know as Virgo may have been known as Isis, the principle mother goddess who helped form the Milky Way.

Also late at night this week, on the opposite side of the sky, lies the second-smallest constellation: Equuleus, the little horse. Equuleus is thought to be the swift brother of Pegasus, the winged horse, though we don't know much about this star grouping.

You will need a very dark sky to even hope to see Equuleus, however. Most of its stars are so faint we cannot easily spot them except in the most rural of areas.

So tiny and unknown is Equuleus that, in his classic three-volume, 2,138-page tome titled "Burnham's Celestial Handbook," Robert Burnham Jr. devotes just three pages to it, compared to 68 pages for the constellation Virgo.

So, which are the largest and smallest of all constellations? The top banana in each category is Hydra, the water snake, barely 0.75 percent larger than Virgo, and Crux, the Southern Cross (which is not visible from most of the U.S.), about 5.5 percent smaller than Equuleus.

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