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Sky Watch: 2nd-biggest, -smallest constellations

Second place, unfortunately, is often forgotten. And so it is with stars and constellations.

Though we often think of constellations as celestial pictures, they are defined as areas that divide the sky much as states divide our country. And, just like states, all have different sizes and shapes, and all fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Every point in the United States is part of a state (except for the District of Columbia) and every point in the sky is part of a constellation.

And just as you may not know the second smallest and largest states, my guess is that you also don't know the second smallest and largest constellations either. I didn't until I looked them up. Fortunately, these stellar second bananas are both in our sky during late evening hours right now.

In the southwestern sky late at night this week, we can find the second largest of all constellations: Virgo, the maiden. It encompasses about 3 percent of the entire celestial sphere and is marked by the bright white star Spica and, temporarily, by the bright planets Saturn and Mars.

Throughout history, Virgo seems to have represented just about every major female deity.In Sumerian-Chaldean civilizations, she was known as Ishtar, Queen of the Stars. To ancient Romans, she was Ceres, the goddess of growth and harvest. In ancient Egypt, the stars we know as Virgo may have been Isis, the mother goddess of ancient Egypt who helped form the Milky Way.

On the opposite side of the sky around the same time lies the second smallest of all constellations: Equuleus, the little horse. Equuleus is thought to be the swift brother of Pegasus, the winged horse, though not much is known about this star grouping.

You may need a very dark sky to see Equuleus, however; most of its stars are so faint we cannot easily spot them except in rural areas.

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