I’ve been meaning to tell you about the tiny constellation Delphinus the Dolphin and now’s the time since it’s riding so high in the September sky.
A little under a hundred years ago the International Astronomical Union officially divided the sky into eighty-eight constellations to standardize the night sky worldwide. Forty-eight of those constellations were cataloged by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the 2nd century. Since then, the other forty have been gradually added by several astronomers, with many of those in the southern hemisphere and southern portions of the northern hemisphere.
Delphinus the Dolphin is one of Ptolomy’s original constellations. Even though it’s small and dim, it’s distinct and is one of the few constellations that actually resembles what it’s supposed to look like. Even though it’s the nineteenth smallest constellation it’s one of my very favorites! I love pointing it out at stargazing classes and parties. Once you see it you’ll never forget it. Delphinus is made up of a petite and skinny little diamond of faint stars that outlines the torso and head of the little Dolphin and a single faint star that marks the tail. Currently, Delphinus is swimming in the celestial sea in the fairly high southern sky as evening darkness sets in.
The best way to find Delphinus is by using the famous “Summer Triangle.” Even though we’re into September the Summer Triangle is hanging high in the southern sky. It’s very easy to spot. Just look for the three brightest stars that you can see in the southern sky, and that’s it.
This triad of bright stars comprises stars from three separate constellations, each being the brightest star in their respective constellation. If you face toward the south the brightest star you’ll see will be Vega, on the right corner of the Summer Triangle and the brightest star in the constellation Lyra the Harp. Just above and to the left of Vega is Deneb at the top of Summer Triangle; Deneb’s the brightest star in the constellation Cygnus the Swan. On the lower corner is Altair, the brightest luminary in the constellation Aquila the Eagle. It’s from Altair that you find the diminutive dolphin. Just gaze about two fist-widths at arm’s length to the left and a little above Altair to find a skinny diagonally orientated diamond that makes up the body of the cute little dolphin. The dolphin’s tail is marked by a star that’s just a little way to the lower right of the diamond.
Even though the five main stars that make up Delphinus are faint and dainty nothing could be farther from the truth! Each one of those little shiners is much larger and way more powerful than our sun. They kick out so much more light and energy than our home star. Their faintness in our night sky is simply due to their vast distance. They range from 95 light-years to over 360 light-years away. Just one light-year, the distance that a beam of light travels in one year’s time, is almost six trillion miles!
Throughout the ages, people have used constellations to tell stories tied to local religion or mythology. That’s certainly the case with Delphinus. Many early Hebrew towns saw Delphinus as a whale, reminding them of the Old Testament story of Jonah and the whale. Early Christian settlements saw the little diamond of stars as the Cross of Jesus.
I love the Greek mythology tales about Delphinus. It involves Poseidon, the god of the sea. As with most of the Greek gods, Poseidon was quite a playboy who really got around in his youth. After many years he tried to domesticate himself and get married. He set his sights on Amphitrite, one of the many Nereids that occupied his domain. Nereids, or sea nymphs, were like mermaids according to legend. It was their mission to provide safety and protection for sailors and fishermen. Male mariners also found them to be nice eye candy and very entertaining!
Despite Poseidon’s attempted charm and all his wooing, Amphitrite was underwhelmed by his sliminess and avoided him like the plague. She hated the god of the sea! Poseidon wasn’t about to quit his ill-fated pursuit. His love and lust were on a mission, and hook or crook, he was determined to have his prize! How about this for class? He kidnapped Amphitrite. He put her in a cage! How about that for charm!
Amphitrite attempted to escape but one day when one of Poseidon’s guards opened the door of the cage she screamed at him at the top of her lung with such a high pitch that it stunned the guard just long enough for her to slip behind him swimming her tail off as far as she could. Even after Amphitrite’s great escape Poseidon didn’t give up. He simply refused to go through life without his favorite sea nymph. He vowed to change his ways and actually become a nice guy. He sent Delphinus, his faithful and magical dolphin, to search for Amphitrite. Not only could Delphinus talk he was a diplomat as well. He managed to find Amphitrite and persuaded her to give Poseidon a chance. After all Poseidon had done to her, this was a tremendous change of heart. So she climbed on Delphinus’s back and rode back to the god of the sea. They were happily married, and as a reward, Poseidon placed his faithful dolphin in the heavens as the constellation we still see thousands of years later.
Again, Delphinus the Dolphin is navigating the celestial waters in the early evening southern sky. It might take a little work to find the little Dolphin of the night sky but it’s worth it!
Diagram of THE CONSTELLATION DELPHINUS...Click here