Noctua, Voice Of The Night


The waning gibbous moon plays "Where’s Waldo" among the limbs and leaves of a tree this morning (Sept. 18). The moon’s path is now so high in the sky that it’s still well up in the west during the morning hours. This photo was taken around 8 o’clock. Photo: Bob King / Duluth News Tribune

Hooo-hoo-hooo … hoooooo hoooooo echoed through the woods last night as two great horned owls exchanged calls under the waning gibbous moon. Their voices were soft and muffled as if coming from a great distance. Few sounds fit the mood of night better than than those of owls.

It’s a disappointment that an owl constellation never made it into the firmament. Most of the connect-the-dots figures we learn in the night sky were handed down from the ancient civilizations of the Middle East through the Greeks and Romans. Each has its own wonderful story to tell but sadly, the owl does not hoot among them.


Noctua the Owl made a brief appearance in Jamieson’s Celestial Atlas and Elijah Burritt’s popular Geography of the Heavens before disappearing from the celestial scene. Credit: Urania’s Mirror published by Samuel Leigh around 1825 and based on Jamieson’s atlas. Photo of great horned owl: Billy Hunt

We came close to getting an owl back in 1822, when the English amateur astronomer Alexander Jamieson changed what had been called the Rock Thrush into Noctua, the owl on his Celestial Atlas. Creating new constellations to fill in gaps between the traditional constellations had been going on since the 17th century. That was the golden age of celestial cartography, when astronomers created new star patterns from the fainter, "leftover" stars either to make a name for themselves, flatter their country’s ruler (and gain favor by doing so) or celebrate a new discovery, like the invention of the electrical machine.


Fornax, the chemical furnace (left), is a faint constellation in the fall southern sky. Machina Electrica, an obsolete constellation, used to reside near Fornax. Credit: Urania’s Mirror published by Samuel Leigh around 1825 based on Jamieson’s altas.

Everyone was a free agent back then, and depending upon the weight of your authority, some of the newly-minted constellations were accepted, like Canes Venatici (the Hunting Dogs), created in 1687 from additional stars around the Ursa Major, and Fornax the chemical furnace from 1751. Others like Officina Typographica, created to honor Gutenberg’s printing press, and Rangifer the reindeer, never cut the mustard.

After all the pushing and shoving was over, the 88 constellations that survived the melee, were officially recognized by the International Astronomical Union in 1922. Precise borders were drawn up and approved in 1930. To read more about obsolete constellations, you can click on Ian Ridpath’s excellent site or visit Shane Horvatin’s page

The only constellation-inventing happening these days are what you and I create for fun. There’s a big group of stars across the summer sky that I casually refer to as the spider web. Do you have any homemade constellations?