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Sneaky Stars

July 1, 2010

If not for a couple of faint stars in the constellation Delphinus, the dolphin, the modern world would never know of a 19th-century astronomer named Niccolo Cacciatore. But thanks to a bit of sneakiness on his part, his name far outweighs his accomplishments.

Cacciatore was assistant director of Sicily's Palermo Observatory. The director put him in charge of compiling a large star catalog, which was published in 1814.

Years later, other astronomers noted a couple of odd names in the catalog: Sualocin and Rotanev. No one was sure where they came from or what they meant. Eventually, though, a British astronomer solved the puzzle. If you reverse the letters in the names, they spell the Latin name Nicolaus Venator. In English, that translates as Nick Hunter. But in Italian, it translates as Niccolo Cacciatore -- the man who compiled the catalog.

If you have clear, dark skies, far from city lights, these two little stars are in good view on summer evenings.

Delphinus is in the east at nightfall, and its brightest stars really do form the shape of a dolphin. Sualocin is the brightest star in the pattern, and represents the dolphin's back. Rotanev is a little to the right or lower right, at the end of the dolphin's body.

The dolphin glides high overhead during the night. But if you live in a light-polluted city, you'll miss this pretty little constellation -- and the legacy of Niccolo Cacciatore.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010


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