Thursday, August 5, 2010

Alpha Leonis Minoris (alpha LMi)

Okay, here's a prime example of what I'm talking about. The above designation seems clear enough: the brightest (alpha) star in the constellation Leo Minor (Leonis Minoris, LMi for short). Except you won't find it in any atlas.

Francis Baily was a British astronomer in the first half of the 19th century. He did many great things, but he was a scrooge with Greek letters. He lettered a few constellations that Bayer hadn't already done, but Baily would only add one if the star's magnitude was 4.5 or brighter. This was an idiosyncratic decision, because Bayer, who started everything off, was far more generous than that.

But inexplicably, Baily omitted Alpha in Leo Minor. He assigned a Beta (magnitude 4.2), but the brightest star Alpha (magnitude 3.8) he left unlettered. This was surely an oversight, given his stated objective, but in over 160 years since then, no one has corrected the oversight. Bode (1801) gave it the letter o, but this is confusing, and some atlases have called it omicron, the Greek letter, by mistake.

Truly. In 2010, we are still without an Alpha.

It's not hard to rectify. Gould would surely have fixed it if it had been within his purview, but Leo Minor is too far north to be included in his catalogue (Gould lettered stars of 6th magnitude or brighter). How about we finally put things right?
  • Alpha: 46 LMi (3.8V)
  • Beta: 31 LMi (4.2V)
  • Gamma: 21 LMi (4.5V)
There we go, the three brightest stars in Leo Minor now have letters, as they should have all along. I may assign some more, but I will be scientific about it and check the surrounding constellations to see what magnitude limit to use. I'll let you know!

The 3 brightest stars of Leo Minor. From L to R, what should be: α, β, γ.

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