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Remembering John Davis

An experienced observer's legacy.
Harrington

I ended last month’s column with two asterisms that were first spotted and named by Massachusetts amateur astronomer John Davis. His keen eye and unstoppable passion for observing spanned half a century.

Born in Manchester, New Hampshire, he spent most of his adult life in Amherst, Massachusetts. There, the University of Massachusetts’ thriving astronomy program, with its many public outreach events, stoked Davis’ interest.

For many decades, he was a well-known personality at amateur astronomy organizations and events across New England. He was an active longtime member of the Arunah Hill Natural Science Center in Worthington, Massachusetts, as well as of the Amherst Area Amateur Astronomers Association (the 5As), from whom he received a Lifetime Achievement Award.

I first met Davis some three decades ago at the Astronomers’ Conjunction, a small annual convention in Northfield, Massachusetts. We became fast friends, sharing stories about conquests through our binoculars. It quickly became clear to me that not only did he have exceptional observing skills, but his inventive mind also let him see patterns, or asterisms, through his binoculars where I just saw random patterns of stars.

ASYPH0818_01
Nestled in Cassiopeia, the Queen’s Kite sports a diamond-shaped frame of gemmy stars.
Tony Hallas
Davis passed away earlier this year, and so in his memory, I would like to devote this column to some of the asterisms that he created. I mentioned two in last month’s column — the Garden Trowel and the Hockey Stick. Here are four more. Can you see what he saw?

Let’s begin at the red star Rasalgethi (Alpha [α] Herculis) in far southern Hercules. Look about 3° to its west, and you should spot a fainter, orangish star. That star, SAO 102553, is midway along an arc of stars beginning at 60 Herculis and ending 4° northwest at 8th-magnitude SAO 102489. That’s the tail and spine of Davis’ Dinosaur, a collection of about two dozen 6th- to 8th-magnitude stars spanning 7°. Two faint stars north-northwest of SAO 102584 mark the tips of the dinosaur’s two horns (think triceratops), while three other points due west, including 49 Her, define its head and protrusive third horn. A line under the backbone from 60 Her to 8th-magnitude SAO 102511 completes the underside of the tail, while an extension southwestward to 6th-magnitude SAO 102474 forms its right leg and foot. Finally, a faint meandering of stars hooks around to 49 Her to complete the profile. It sounds complicated, but with the aid of low-power binoculars, the Dinosaur stands out nicely.

M27, the famous Dumbbell Nebula in Vulpecula, is a showpiece of the summer sky. While viewing it once through his binoculars, Davis noticed that it seemed to lie just south of a pattern that looked like a Cowboy Boot. The sole itself is drawn by connecting a line from 12 Vulpeculae through 14, 17, and finally 22 Vul, with 12 at the tip of the toe and 22 the heel. Continue northward from 22 to 24, 19, and 23 Vul to create the back of the boot. Westward from 23 to 15 Vul marks the Boot’s top opening, followed by a southward plunge to 16 Vul for the front. Finally, curve from 16 to 13, and back to 12 Vul for the pointy toe. Like the Dinosaur, the Cowboy Boot fills the 7° field of my 10x50 binoculars. By scanning north-northeast of the Boot, you will also see two long strings of stars that he called the Flying Bootlaces.

ASYPH0818_02
Davis’ Dinosaur is an asterism of two dozen 6th- to 8th-magnitude stars in Hercules.
Tony Hallas
What would a cowboy boot be without a cowboy? Davis gave us one on the back of a Bucking Bronco within the constellation Delphinus. This asterism, centered on 5th-magnitude Theta (θ) Delphini, is smaller than the previous two, making it ideal for higher-power binoculars. Imagine Theta as the horse’s saddle. East of Theta, four faint stars form a backward 7, defining the horse’s raised hind leg and tail. Southwest of Theta, five faint points outline its arched back, neck, and head. The cowboy himself is drawn from an arc of 10th-magnitude stars northwest of Theta.

Our final asterism lies within Cassiopeia, making it circumpolar for those of us viewing from mid-northern latitudes. It’s dubbed the Queen’s Kite, and its distinctive diamond-shaped frame can be found about 2° southeast of Delta (δ) Cassiopeiae. The top point of the kite is marked by 5th-magnitude Chi (χ) Cassiopeiae. Half a dozen 6th- and 7th-magnitude stars fill out the rest of the kite’s diamond-shaped body, seen cocked toward the southeast. SAO 22566 forms the southernmost tip. Five more stars in an arc wind toward the west-southwest for the tail. 

We will visit more asterisms first drawn with John Davis’ imaginative eyes in future columns, including an airplane, a muscleman, and a dog. 

And when you look skyward, pause to remember John. His binoculars were always close at hand when stargazing. That’s because, like me, John believed that two eyes are better than one.

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