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Imagine a picture-perfect spring evening. You are walking on the beach; a cool breeze brushes your face. As you turn to gaze out over the water, an ancient Greek warship carries the Argonauts up from below the horizon. You watch the ship arc up into the sky as if it is cresting a large wave. The ship floats higher up on the wave, as the twilight sky turns dark. It never reaches the top, and a few hours after nightfall the ship slips back below the horizon with its crew, only to repeat the journey the next evening.
Argus built the legendary warship for Jason to use during his adventure to the Black Sea. The mission goal was to capture the Golden Fleece. Jason named the ship after the builder, calling it Argos Navis. Its crew consisted of 50 ancient Greek heroes. Hercules was among the strong. Apollonius of Rhodes, who told the ship’s story, noted it was the finest vessel with oars that ever sailed the sea. Of course, we are not watching a ghost ship on the horizon but a constellation named in honor of the ship and its successful epic of retrieving the Fleece.
The original constellation was the largest of the 48 formed by Greek astronomers. Today, the ship is decommissioned and remains in pieces in the sky. During the early 1800s, Johann Bode, an astronomer, had a hard time fitting the ship’s picture on his famous star chart. The first astronomer to divide the group into thirds was the French astronomer Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, as he mapped out the southern star groups in a 1763 map. The astronomers in the 1800s finalized the ship’s division into three groups for easy of mapping the stars: Puppis, Carina and Vela.
Puppis, or stern, is the back of the boat for us landlubbers. It is not Greek or Latin for puppy. This is the first part of the ship’s hull to rise above the horizon making it move backwards. Carina or keel makes up the rest of the ship’s hull and Vela is the sail for the vessel. Vela and Puppis contain no bright stars. The astronomers that divide Argos Navis formed Carina with the only bright stars. It is time to find the famous dismantled ship.
As you are taking your stroll down the beach, look at the sunset, and turn to the left. Three bright stars form a large triangle, the winter triangle; these are among the first stars to appear. To the left of the lowest star of this triangle is Puppis, then after a while, Carina appears, and on top of these two groups is Vela. In Brunswick County, since we look out over the water, it helps our flight of the imagination in viewing the ships struggle to climb the wave.
The second brightest star in the sky, Canopus, helps to find Carina. Canopus lies to the left of Sirius, the brightest star. It is positioned just above the water. Canopus bears the name of an ancient navigator; in fitting tribute, space probes use this star to navigate the sky. Since no bright star patterns help to discern the three groups, use a star map to navigate the groups using Canopus as a guide. Eta Carinae is a star just under the horizon, so we cannot see it from Brunswick County. It is a Super Nova waiting to happen. In 1843, it flared up and was brighter then Canopus; however, today it is barely visible.
A star map with images of the ship will be on Ingram Planetarium’s website. For extra help, join a star show and we will create the ships struggles on the dome.