Archive for the ‘Stars and Constellations’ Category

The Unexplainable Universe   Leave a comment


The universe, as credited to Wikipedia

Ever lay on your back on a summer night, looking up at the sky and think to yourself, “Where does it all end?”

Or begin.

Or go.


Ask a person to explain the universe is and guaranteed you’ll receive an answer just as expansive.  Frustrating to conceive of an area that defies convention.  For that’s what it is: an enigma.

Sure, scientists the world over have struggled to define just exactly what it is that the Earth inhabits and how it came about to be.  Mathematical calculations summarize what is perceived to be forces governing its structure, but as soon as one explanation arises, another takes its place.

Take, for instance, the recent talk  about finding traces of waves of the original big bang isn’t all it seemed to be.  Could be interstellar dust, although optimism remains that perhaps evidence of the Big Bang is still present in the astronomer’s findings.  And not to discount their discovery, because if they truly do find remnants of all that is, ever was and will be, my God, that’s like touching the face of eternity.

Though I’m not a scientist, I do wonder how an event so enormous, so unfathomable to most mortals, could have left a trail of crumbs in its wake.  It has been determined that the universe began 13.798 ± 0.037 billion years ago, more or less.  That’s all calculation, the only tool available to determine its age.  It’s also calculated that the observable universe is 48 billion light years in size.  Nothing to sneeze at, of course.  These numbers are only the result of of the logic of numbers and not the result of a person who stood at the rim and said, “Well, then, here we are…at the end.”  Unless, of course, you’re a person named Doug who’s actually hitchhiked your way from one end to the other.  In my opinion, he’s in a place to know at present, but he’s not giving up his secrets anytime soon.

My mind shuts down when I contemplate the enormity of all there is.  It gets worse when I attempt to ponder what caused its creation.  That Big Bang came out of…what?  What was before it?  Could it be that there was a universe that lived, breathed and died before it?  Or perhaps time bent backwards and regenerated its youth to live in another incarnation?

Will we ever know the answer?

Only the eternal reaches of the universe and time can tell.

Return of the Herdsman   Leave a comment



Herding the heavens is a job requiring skill, dedication and longevity.  There is such a person, if you will, who’s been doing it as close to forever as imaginable.

Allow me to introduce Boötes, otherwise known as The Herdsman.  Boötes commands his starry field every spring and summer, rising in the east at sunset in April and traveling across the skies all summer long.  He sits on a dark perch, staring at his charges while smoking a pipe.  In his lap rests Arcturus (“guardian of the bear” in ancient Greek).  He pays particular attention to the Great Bear (Ursa Major) and the Little Bear (Ursa Minor, or Little Dipper), keeping a watchful eye on both.

Boötes has a lot going for him, with so much history and celestial happenings, he deserves his given name.  Ptolomy counted him among the original 48 constellations, making him one of the oldest recorded constellations on record.  Homer mentions him in The Odyssey.  it contains the fourth brightest star in the sky, Arcturus, with a magnitude of .  To open the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair, that particular star’s light shone on a photoelectric cell.  Arcturus also changes its place in the heavens more rapidly than any other of the bright stars.  1600 years ago, it was about one full moon’s width farther northeast in the sky.

Izar (also known as Pulcherrima), the star located at Boötes’ neck, is not one star but three.  The largest is a yellow 2.5 magnitude star, the secondary star is a 4.6 magnitude blue star, and the tertiary is a magnitude 12.0 star (not visible to the naked eye).  Izar is easily visible and with a telescope, all three stars can be seen moving around each other.

In addition to Izar, there are also 8 other multiple stars, including XI Bootis, a quadruple star consisting of a primary yellow star of magnetite 4.7 and a secondary orange star of magnitude 6.8, and two others

And if that weren’t enough, there are at least 6 stars that host planetary systems, all containing Jupiter-like planets.  Add to that mix one globular cluster and other star clusters, a gaggle of galaxies, as well as a huge void empty of galaxies.

Just to show you that he’s not finished with you yet, Boötes hosts several meteor showers throughout the year, beginning with the Quadrantid meteor shower that occurs around January 3-4.  The June Bootids aren’t quite as remarkable, but one never knows what might surprises might come of it.  Throughout the year there are also other minor meteor events too, but nothing to match these.

So: break out your telescope, make friends with Herdsman, and explore the universe in one easy, convenient location.


Posted April 21, 2014 by seleneymoon in Stars and Constellations

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Dissed By the 88   Leave a comment


A picture of the Big Dipper taken 2007/08/23 from the Kalalau Valley lookout at Koke’e State Park in Hawaii.

Have you ever felt rejection?  Of course you have.  It’s like this.

So you get all dressed for a party, suit up and shave, maybe slap on a little smell good and bounce out the door.  Everyone’s going to recognize you, tell you what you want to hear, kiss up a bit.  Sure, it’s going to be a great evening, all sparkles and glows.

Pulling up to the party, you notice there’s eight-eight cars filling all the spots.  Hey, look, a Lamborghini sitting next to a Chevelle.  Who’s that loser, eh?  But at least the Chevelle’s parked.  Where’s the spot for you car?  Nothing. That block where Party Central’s kicking seems to be further and further away as your car searches for someplace within the same town.  Finally, you spot one, but it’s kind of remote.  Still, it’s available.  In zips your car and for now, that party’s still jamming and you’re making tracks.

Knocking on the door, you feel the high vibe on the other side.  After a few moments there’s no answer.  Another knock.  Nothing.  Damn!  If everyone knows me, why don’t they hear me?  Why don’t they answer?  Why’m I being dissed?

Because you’re an asterism, that’s way.

Asterisms are those groups of stars that are incredibly famous, everyone knows who they are yet they have no official recognition.  How?  Why?

That’s because they’re only part of the story.  There’s more where that group of stars came from.

Take, for example, The Big Dipper.  There’s hardly a person in the northern hemisphere that doesn’t recognize it.  Visible all year long, its two forward stars point directly to Polaris, the celestial north pole.  It dances gracefully with Cassiopeia on the opposite side of Polaris, and if you’re clever, one can tell the time by their position in the sky.  Yet The Big Dipper is part of Ursa Major, or The Big Bear.  It forms a saddle of sorts on the Big Bear’s back.

Another example is The Pleiades.  This sparkling group of six stars shimmers on cold winter nights.  They are part of Taurus the Bull, and sit at the end of Taurus’ horn.  Occasionally, a planet or the moon might wander nearby, and if you’re really lucky, one of those might appear to cross over it.

There are others, like the Teapot (part of Sagittarius) and the False Cross (part of mega southern constellation Argo/The Ship, made up from components of the Ship’s Sail/Vela and Ship’s Keel/Carina), and Great Square, connecting Andromeda and Pegasus.

Don’t feel bad for these asterisms, however.  It’s good to be taken.  Who wants to be alone?

Posted March 18, 2014 by seleneymoon in Stars and Constellations

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H.A. Rey, Amateur Astronomer or, He’s Not All Curious George   Leave a comment

320px-Gemini_constellation_map.svg-2                  Gemini_constellation_map_visualization_1

Back in the sixth grade, I wandered into the school library to pick out a good read.  At the time, I had a serious crush on Encyclopedia Brown.  He was so cute, so smart, and he had a girl for a bodyguard.  As an added bonus, his Dad was the Chief of Police, giving him an edge to solve mysteries.  As I sifted through the shelves, I was horrified to discover that all of the EB books had taken leave with another student.  I felt betrayed somehow, as if he was cheating on me.  Brokenhearted, I rifled through the science section, thinking, “I’ll show him,” and selected a topic far and away from his range of knowledge.  If EB thought detecting was cool, I was out to prove that astronomy was much, much cooler.

At that age, I knew few constellations, mainly the standards like the Dippers (technically speaking, the Big Dipper is an asterism), Orion and a few others.  I had a really cheap telescope and stared at the moon when it passed by my bedroom window.  I did see all these gloriously illustrated pictures of people and things superimposed over stars.  Yet when I tried to find them in the sky, I had a better chance of solving EB’s mysteries a few pages in than I ever did figuring out where those group of stars happened to be.

Sticking out at an odd angle was a deep blue and yellow book.  Its spine said The Stars and was written by H.A. Rey.  Say, wasn’t he the “Curious George” guy?  The book’s colors were similar (think the man in the yellow hat).  I pulled it out and on the cover was the constellation Gemini, actually looking like stick figure twins.  I opened the book and there were many more constellations to choose from, all more or less resembling what they were meant to represent.

It was a revelation.

Rey’s many charts in the book redrew the lines connecting the stars and by doing so, revolutionized the way the average person sees the constellations.  To this day, I wonder why no one had thought of this before.  Thanks to his insight, many field guides have adopted his methods of presenting the constellations.  Even Albert Einstein noticed his work and said, “Many thanks for your lucid and stimulating book.  I hope it will find the interest it deserves.”

Every night I could, I’d go outside with my copy of The Stars and see what else there was hanging out in the heavens.  Before long, I knew them all, when they rose and set, what season they belonged to and how to find planets among them.  The stars became my friends.  Excited to see The Herdsman each spring, I’d ask him how things were since we last met.   The Scorpion, first rising at dawn at the end of January, makes me happy to know that summer’s not all that far away if it’s rising.  Aquarius, my sign, is a gorgeous constellation that spreads across the late summer and early fall sky, if somewhat dim.

Rey conceived this book for anyone sharing the love of the heavens as he did.  I highly recommend this book who wishes to embrace and further their love for the stars.  And when next watching your favorite sci-fi show or movie, you’ll know exactly where the Andromeda Galaxy is…clearly marked on the knee of the constellation for which the galaxy is named…as shown on Page 42.

The Stars: A New Way to See Them, (ISBN 0-395-24830-2)

Gone and Forgotten   Leave a comment


Felis, as depicted in “Uranographia,” Johann Bode, 1801

There are eighty-eight recognized constellations in the evening sky.  Depending upon one’s latitude, each will make a grand entrance or hide in the wings.  For example, the Southern Cross isn’t visible north of latitude 20 degrees north.  Everyone below that enjoys it at least part of the year.  Orion hunts nearly all latitudes every winter, but he’ll never catch the little bear in New Zealand.  That one never strays that far south, and anyone south of latitude 10 degrees south never will.

Casual stargazers, no matter where on earth they live, will never experience the joys of standing in a dark field to pick out the stars of Felis.  And try as one might, The Battery of Volta just won’t appear (although it sounds as if it’d make a great mystery).  Sadly, at Christmas, there are no word to express how disappointed a child might be to learn that Tarandus gel Rangifer has better things to do than show up in her backyard.


Welcome to the world of obsolete constellations.

Yes, folks, if you thought the stars were permanent, well, they are, but it’s their groupings and names that pass on into the literal unknown.  They fade into obscurity as we surely all will.

But who gets to name them in the first place?  Excellent question.  I’ll address that in another blog.

To answer this question on how it applies to constellations, here’s a quick answer: some astronomer made them up.  In the case of Tarandus gel Rangifer, it was the creation of French astronomer Pierre Charles Le Monnier in 1736.  He wished to commemorate an expedition from Maupertius to Lapland whose goal was to prove the Earth’s oblateness.  Rangifer never caught the public’s imagination, or, it would seem, awareness.

Oh, by the way, it means “Reindeer.”

Argo Navis, or the ship Argo, falls into a grey area.  It still sails the southern skies (albeit backwards) mainly in the first half of the year, but due to its unwieldy size, it was broken up into four constellations: Carina (keel), Puppis (stern), Vela (sails) and Pyxis (compass).  Out of the forty-eight constellations that Ptolemy recognized, it is the only one no longer recognized from that group.  You can thank another French astronomer, Nicolas Louis de Lacaille for busting up the ship, as he did in 1752.

One can, however, still piece Argo together, if one chooses.  A star grouping shared between Vela and Puppis forms the asterism “False Cross,” which is a poor man’s version of the Southern Cross.  So you know, an asterism is a grouping of stars that isn’t officially recognized as a constellation at all.  They’re just part of someone else’s turf, like the Big Dipper is really part of Ursa Major.

Next time you stand out on your lawn and give those nightly lanterns a good look and find yourself thinking,  “Hmm, who did you used to be?” It won’t be some faded Hollywood has-been…just a few misplaced, rearranged constellations, faded from the celestial scene.

Posted March 4, 2014 by seleneymoon in Stars and Constellations

No. 13 in the Zodiac   Leave a comment


The constellation Ophiuchus (The Serpent Holder), as shown on

Most people take for granted that there’s a safe, stable number of zodiac constellations: 12.  I bet you can even name them.  But here’s one that you might not know: Ophiuchus.


You heard me: Ophiuchus.

My friend, I’ve been a Ophiuchus fan for years.  He’s the most underrated member of the ecliptic going.  His legs dangle ever so tenuously into the zodiac, just above Scorpius.  He’s actually trying to step on it – wouldn’t you?  Planets have been know to trod on his toes or through his legs.

So why isn’t he part of the party?  There’s all sorts of reasons for that.  Some say it’s traditional to have 12 signs of the zodiac, but the more practical application is that the area around the constellations has been allotted and Ophiuchus’ official territory doesn’t count for much.  In fact, I could write a million blogs just about that, but why bother?  What makes him most interesting is he’s also thought to be the only celestial representation of a historical person.

According to H.A. Rey, noted amateur astronomer and writer of “Curious George” books, he states:

“To speak of the Serpent Holder [Ophiuchus] as a doctor is not a mere whim.  The figure is thought to represent Asklepios, Greek god of medicine who can be traced back to the Egyptian Imhotep (about 2900 BC), eminent physician and architect and first man of science in recorded history.  The Serpent Holder thus becomes, indirectly, the only constellation representing a historical person.”

In Greek mythology, Asklepios was a doctor who knew the secret of death.  Since his patients continued to live healthy, productive lives, Hades, the god of the underworld, grew uneasy.  No deaths, no need for an underworld.  Dr. Asklepios’ services were called into order when Orion was killed by a scorpion.  As Dr. A tried to revive him, he found himself on the business end of a lighting bolt, shot by none other than Zeus himself.  Hades had called on his brother Z to do the dirty work, in order to continue his employment.  But the good Dr. A was recognized as a worthy sort and so found a home for eternity among the stars, along with Orion’s killer scorpion.    They reside on opposite sides of the night sky, so when you see one, you cannot see the other.  Keeps everyone out of trouble this way.

Ophiuchus isn’t just a zodiacal oddity.  He has planets of his own.  15, to be exact.  So why bother with waiting for any of our solar system’s planet to cross his territory when he doesn’t have to?  One planet in particular, GJ 1214, is only 42 light years away and is presently being observed for more data.

If you’d like to see Ophiuchus for yourself, his calling hours are generally late May, July and August, in the southern portion of the sky, just above Scorpio.  He’s a little dim, but on a clear night you can pick him out.

And who knows?  One of these nights, you might find a planet wandering nearby.


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