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Find the Celestial Dolphin


Last updated 9/14/2023 at 12:34pm

Different cultures have viewed this constellation differently, including as a porpoise, a riding camel and the great fish of Jonah.

One of the tiniest constellations in all the heavens now appears high in the eastern sky after dark. As small and faint as it is, it's not all that difficult to locate, and it's one that I love to share with the public during my stargazing programs.

It's known as Delphinus, the dolphin.

Stargazers under dark skies far from city lights will have little trouble spotting Delphinus high in the eastern sky during September nights.

To find its faint stars among the stellar maze, however, you'll first need to find the Summer Triangle, and I would hope that regular readers of this column already know how to do this.

After dark at this time of year, go out and face eastward, and nearly overhead you'll see its three stars shining brightly. At the westernmost vertex of the large triangle lies the brightest of the trio: Vega. Vega, you may recall, is the most prominent star in the constellation of Lyra, the harp. The star on the triangle's lower right is Altair, which marks the constellation of Aquila, the eagle. Completing the figure is Deneb, the faintest of the three stars, forming the tail of Cygnus, the swan.

If you're viewing under a dark sky, you'll easily spot the wispy star clouds and dark rifts of the Milky Way that arc from north to south through the middle of the great triangle.

Once you find this handy celestial marker, you should be able to locate Delphinus. Look for five faint stars just to the east of the triangle – four that form an elongated diamond and one that stands alone – and you'll see the tiny outline of a dolphin leaping from the water toward the north.

The Hindus knew this star grouping as a porpoise, the Arabs as a riding camel; and in early Hebrew tradition, it was sometimes identified with the great fish of Jonah. Its four main stars form a grouping that some call Job's Coffin, though the origin of this name seems lost in history.

Its two main stars, Sualocin and Rotanev, were first mentioned in 1814 in a star catalog, published at the Palermo Observatory in Sicily. Read backward, these two words form the name "Nicolaus Venator," which is the Latin version of the Italian name Niccolo Cacciatore who, at the time, was the assistant director of the observatory.

According to one legend, Delphinus is the dolphin that carried the ancient Greek poet Arion safely to shore at Tarentum, allowing him to escape his enemies. The figure of a youth on the dolphin appears on a classic series of silver coins issued at Tarentum in southern Italy around 370 B.C.

Delphinus also appeared prominently on the splendid coins of Syracuse in Sicily, dating from about the fifth century B.C. These silver coins were designed to commemorate the great victory over the Athenians in 413 B.C. and have been considered by some to be the most beautiful of all time.

Find the celestial dolphin and you'll see why it's been the object of so much admiration through the ages. Delphinus – as tiny and faint as it appears – is truly a beautiful and intriguing sight!

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