Mike Lynch’s Skywatch: The little marine mammal of the stars

13September 2020

I just love the little constellation Delphinus the Dolphin, and I hope to make you fall in love with it too! Delphinus is in the upper tier of the smallest of constellations seen from Earth. When most people think of constellations they think of dot-to-dot pictures made by stars. The vast majority of constellations don’t measure up to this. The little celestial dolphin is a pleasant exception.

Delphinus is a simple little constellation and easy to find, even in areas of moderate light pollution. It’s certainly not the brightest, but it’s very distinct and in a tight little grouping. In the early evening, as soon as it’s dark, look for Delphinus in the southeast sky. Delphinus is made up of four stars that form a small sideways diamond that outlines the dolphin’s body, and another star to the lower right of the body that marks its tail. That’s all there is to it.

If you’re still having problems locating it, a great tool for zeroing in on Delphinus is the Summer Triangle, made up of three bright stars that are the brightest in their respective constellations. They’re the three brightest stars you can see in the high southeast sky. The star at the bottom of the summer triangle is Altair, the brightest shiner in the constellation Aquila the Eagle. Just look to the left or east of Altair and there will be Delphinus, swimming in the heavenly sea.

As it is with most constellations, different cultures have stories about what they see. Even the same culture can have multiple stories. That makes sense since these stories are spread by word of mouth. Most stories I’m familiar with have Delphinus as a dolphin or porpoise. One of the earliest stories about Delphinus as a dolphin comes from a Southeast Asia Hindu tale. It’s thought by some that the Greeks “borrowed” that interpretation from the Hindus.

I think one of the best Greek stories involves Arion, who was a rock star of his time. He was out on concert tour winning the hearts of all who heard him and making a lot of money. He didn’t have the best security, though. After every concert he would just throw all the money he earned from the gig into a big burlap sack, toss it over his shoulder, and head out to the next town. His lackadaisical system eventually got him in a lot of trouble.

Arion had just finished a concert in Sicily and hired a boat and crew to take him back to Corinth on the Greek mainland. His crew turned out to be a bunch of pirates who were out for plunder. They would wait until the boat was well out to sea before they revealed their true identity. Their evil plan was to have Arion walk the plank to meet his death, sail on to Corinth, and claim that he accidentally fell overboard. Then the pirates could legally claim the musician’s loot. I don’t think that law is still on the books!

Everything proceeded as planned, at least to start out with. Arion was on the plank pleading for his life. No way were those pirates going to let Arion live. The rock star figured this was the end. Before his appointment with death, he did persuade the crooked captain to let him play his harp and sing one more time. Arion gave it all he had and gave one of his greatest performances. He was so good that it’s said that birds gathered from miles around to listen. Fish jumped out of the water with glee and dolphins surrounded the boat leaping for joy!

Shortly after Arion hit the water, Delphinus, one of the dolphins, hoisted Arion up on his back and sped him safely to Greece. The pirates had no idea where Arion and the dolphin swam off to, so they were quite surprised when they pulled into port and were met by Arion and the local cops. A music-loving hero dolphin saved the day! The world would not be denied Arion’s fantastic talent!

The gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus, who were also fans of Arion, were so impressed by Delphinus’s heroic act.  They were so impressed that upon the dolphin’s passing they placed his body in the stars as the constellation we see in the heavenly sea!

CELESTIAL HAPPENING THIS WEEK: For early morning risers this Sunday, Monday and Tuesday there will be delightful celestial conjunctions! The waning crescent moon will be passing by the very bright planet Venus in the early morning twilight in the low eastern sky.

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net. Mike is available for private star parties. You can contact him at mikewlynch@comcast.net.

Upcoming Mike Lynch Minnesota/Wisconsin Starwatch programs this week:

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