Jimmy Westlake: Columba the Dove

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Jimmy Westlake

Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears Tuesdays in the Steamboat Today.

Find more columns by Westlake here.

Far below the stars of Orion the Hunter, below the stars of Lepus the Rabbit, even below the stars of Orion's Big Hunting Dog, Canis Major, you can find the stars of a small and often overlooked little constellation, flying just over the southern horizon this time of year. It's Columba the Dove, one of nine constellations in our sky representing a bird. Besides the dove, there are constellations immortalizing a swan, an eagle, a toucan, a phoenix, a peacock, a bird of paradise, a crow and a crane.

Originally known as Columba Noae, or Noah's Dove, Columba represents the bird Noah released from the ark to search for dry land during the great flood. The white-feathered bird returned with an olive twig in its mouth, indicating dry land had indeed been found, much to the delight of everyone in the ark. In our sky, Columba appears right beside the stars of the ancient constellation of Argo Navis, the great ship representing Noah's Ark.

Unlike Argo Navis, which is an ancient constellation dating back thousands of years, Columba is a relatively recent addition to the sky. It was formed from a few stars stolen from nearby Canis Major in the 17th century. Astronomer Augustin Royer was the first to publish Columba on his 1679 star chart.

The three main stars of Columba form a small triangle and can be located straight down below the familiar pattern of Orion the Hunter. To see the Dove, you'll need a clear, unobstructed view of the southern horizon. Go outside at about 7 p.m. and face due south. Locate Orion and his three belt stars and look about 1 1/2 hand spans below the great hunter to find the triangle of stars that make Columba. The top star in the triangle is named Phact, from the Arabic word for "dove." The left star in the triangle is named Wazn, from the Arabic words that mean "the weight." The stargazers of old must have thought Wazn was a heavy star, because it wasn't able to rise very high above the southern horizon.

So, if you'd like to check another constellation off your list, try spotting Columba the Dove flying low in the south this month.

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