From royal to reptile

 ¡SkyCaramba! Weekly astronomy blog for the week ending September 22, 2012

Unless you’re looking for the kind that dwells in trees, you’re not used to looking up to spot a lizard. For a little over 300 years, there’s been a lizard in the northern hemisphere astronomical lore. Most people don’t realize that. But why shouldn’t there be a lizard among the constellations? Snakes, dragons, dogs, bears, and rabbits are among the animals that don’t fly that are represented up there along with birds.

Lacerta, the lizard, is a new constellation as far as western astronomers are concerned. Millennia ago, their predecessors in ancient Greece and other lands in the region didn’t look up and see any constellation in the spot now occupied by Lacerta. They didn’t need constellations in every part of the sky. It was okay for them to look up and see groups of stars that didn’t seem to have anything to do. It’s worth noting, however, some stars were grouped into constellations we don’t think of them as being part of today.

Astronomy all those years ago involved what they could see fairly easily with the naked eye. Lacerta is a dim set of stars. It didn’t become a constellation until 1687. That was after Galileo invented the telescope. As astronomers realized there’s a lot more to the sky than they could see with just their eyes, they took more interest in dim stars. They needed ways to describe where they saw whatever they saw. In previously unnamed stretches of sky, modern constellations were created. Johannes Hevelius published a book of stars and named a group between Cygnus and Andromeda after a reptile.

Lacerta became the preferred name for the constellation and finally became official when the International Astronomical Union named 88 constellations in 1920. But the same group of stars had been known, briefly and maybe only in a few locales, by other names before Lacerta caught on.

In 1670, French architect Augustin Royer named the star group Sceptrum. It was to be the scepter of Louis XIV. Maybe it was because Royer wasn’t primarily an astronomer or maybe it was because astronomers outside of France didn’t want to honor a French king, but not many people wanted to call it Sceptrum.

In 1787, Johann Elert Bode called the stars Frederici Honores, or Frederick’s Glory. That was in honor of Frederick the Great. Frederick was a king of Prussia. Bode was an astronomer, so he should have had a bit more clout than an architect when it came to naming constellations. But since the stars were again given the name of a country’s leader, the name wasn’t likely to be popular outside that country.

Some sky watchers from outside western cultures knew of this section of the sky and told stories about it. To the Chinese, Lacerta is part of Tengshe, a flying serpent. To the Chumash people of North America, Lacerta was coincidentally also a lizard. People encountered this lizard on the way to the Land of the Dead.