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Constellations you can salute

by John Crossen

We’ve all seen national flags with images of the Sun, Moon and stars. Some represent astronomical objects such as constellations. Others are just designs. The flag of the United States sports 50 stars. But all they represent is the number of states – not constellations or any particular astronomical object.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is Brazil’s national flag. It is almost a star chart. It depicts stars such as Canopus in Carinae and Spica in Virgo along with complete constellations. What’s more they are shown as they would appear above Rio de Janeiro, on November 15, 1889.

The national flags of Australia and New Zealand are less of a brain twist to decipher because both show the stars that form the Southern Cross. But what about flags that feature what looks to be the Crescent Moon? Or could it really be an eclipse of the Sun that hasn’t reached totality?

André Bordeleau’s new book Flags of the Night Sky (When astronomy meets national pride) digs into the astronomical origins of nearly 40 different national flags. It is written with the authority of a man who has done his homework very thoroughly. But of equal importance, it immerses the reader in a fast-flowing river of fascinating facts and intriguing details.

Country by country, Bordeleau takes us on a guided tour through time to show how national flags evolve as history and countries change. Sometimes they reflect significant political events, the addition of new provinces and changes in boundaries.

Some flags come to life as new nations are born. And at other times changes are made simply to assure that the flag could not be mistaken for that of another country. As an example of this, with the exception of being green and yellow the Brazilian flag once wore stars and stripes in almost the same design as the American flag.

The name for the study of flags is vexillology and it may seem a tad obscure at first. But read a couple of paragraphs of Flags of the Night Sky and you’ll say “betcha didn’t know that...” to the next person you encounter.

The seeds of Flags of the Night Sky were planted in 2008, in the form of a four-page article that André had written for The Planetarian Magazine. But André wanted to take the idea farther – a lot farther.

A friend at the University of Chicago suggested that André talk with the Editor at Springer Publishing whom he thought might be interested in such a book. André emailed him an article on the Brazilian flag to read on the plane while traveling. Coincidentally, the publisher was traveling to Brazil the following day to open an office there.

Fortunately for all of us the publisher found the article fascinating and André’s four-page article has since morphed into a nicely illustrated book.

Flags of the Night Sky is available on Kindle and as a paperback via Springer Publishing. If you treasure trivia, Flags of the Night Sky belongs on your bookshelf.

John can be reached via

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