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Sky watch: Constellation's rare star cluster

Among the stars of the night sky lie constellations that represent real and imaginary people, animals and objects, but rarely do they look like their namesakes. Take the flying steed known as Pegasus. I defy anyone to outline its stars in a way that they can see a flying horse!

Another example is the constellation Monoceros, the unicorn. Monoceros is a rather faint and obscure constellation, and is often overlooked because it lies among some of the brightest stars in the heavens. Look for it after dark the week beginning Jan. 3, just to the east of brilliant Orion and between the bright stars Sirius and Procyon.

Monoceros was probably invented by the 16th-century Dutch theologian, cartographer and astronomer Petrus Plancius, though some believe it was named "Unicornu" by German astronomer Jacob Bartsch, who published Plancius' star maps in 1624.

If you are able to find the constellation in a dark, moonless sky - which is pretty much the only way this is possible - you should also be able to see the Milky Way flowing gently southward through it.

Once you find Monoceros, you'll see it takes quite an imagination to fashion a unicorn out of this star grouping. But it's not so much the constellation that's interesting as what's lurking within. Though they're rather faint, a number of celestial wonders are visible if you have a small telescope.

Monoceros is home to a beautiful triple star system - three stars that orbit a common center of gravity - known as Beta Monocerotis. It was the famous astronomer William Herschel who discovered it in 1781 - the same year he found the planet Uranus. Herschel found the three stars of Beta Monocerotis to form a triangle that doesn't appear to change over time from our distance of nearly 700 light years, and he described it as one of the best triple star systems he'd ever seen.

Also lying within the boundaries of Monoceros is the famous interstellar cloud known as the Rosette Nebula, which engulfs a star cluster known as NGC 2244. With a backyard telescope, one can sometimes make out some diffuse nebulosity, but it takes a pretty hefty scope to distinguish its ring shape. Regardless, at least get out to search for the unicorn. It may be the only one you ever see!


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