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The light and the dark: A reassessment of the discovery of the Coalsack Nebula, the magellanic clouds and the southern cross

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Early observations of the southern celestial sky were reported in many sixteenth-century books and compilations of voyages of discovery. Here we analyse these accounts in order to find out what was really seen and reported by the first navigators. Our analysis had resulted in new interpretations of the phenomena reported by Amerigo Vespucci and Andreas Corsali. Thus, a reassessment of the discovery of the Coalsack Nebula, the Magellanic Clouds, and the Southern Cross can be made. From a comparative review of the observations of the latter constellation as published between 1500 and 1600, we demonstrate that only questionable records found their way to contemporary compilations of voyages of discovery, and that as a result public knowledge about this constellation at the end of the sixteenth century was entirely unreliable. Another problem we discuss is that although the stars of the Southern Cross were the first to be discovered, and were observed again and again by many navigators, it was not until 1678 that their proper positions were found in stellar atlases and star catalogues accessible to astronomers. We explain how negligence of and subsequently confidence in Ptolemy's astronomy by, respectively, the early navigators and cartographers, were at the root of this amazingly long-lasting gap in the knowledge of the southern celestial sky.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Meidoornlaan 13, 3461 ES, Linschoten, The Netherlands

Publication date: 1990-11-01

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