The king and queen of the sky

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

We come to the last two of the Pegasus/Andromeda/ Perseus constellation group and that is Cassiopeia and Cepheus, the king and queen of the story.

Cassiopeia the "W" shaped constellation. It is located in the northeastern part of the sky just above Perseus and is visible starting at about 7 p.m. MST. The constellation is composed of mostly second magnitude stars making them relatively bright. They can be seen even in a light polluted area, but they are better viewed from a dark place.

Cassiopeia is a "circumpolar" constellation; it continually circles Polaris, the North Star, and never sets below the horizon, at least from our latitude. Cepheus is circumpolar too. You can look at Cassiopeia now in the early evening and see the "W" standing on its side. Go out at about 2 a.m. and look high in the sky north and you will see an "M," its typical winter position. Later in the morning, about an hour before sunrise, look in the northwest and it will be standing on its other side, in its typical spring position. In the summer it is low in the north with the full "W" showing.

Located within the star-rich Milky Way, Cassiopeia offers a vast treasure of star clusters for those with telescopes, however, many of these clusters are visible in binoculars too.

Cepheus, the king, is a more difficult constellation to find; its stars are considerably outshone by those of his queen. To find the constellation, draw a line from Perseus through Cassiopeia and go slightly further north to find a square with a triangle on top looking much like how a child would draw a picture of a house. The house is upside down now with the the top of the triangle is pointing south toward Polaris, the North Star. You can also find Cepheus by looking between Cassiopeia and the Little Dipper.

There is one more constellation in the story, that is Cetus, the Sea Monster (or whale according to some interpretations). It is a very indistinct pattern located well away from the other characters and is not above the horizon and viewable until 8 p.m. MST. The very dim zodiacal constellation Pisces, the Fish, comes between Pegasus and Cetus as if keeping it away from the others.

Cetus can be seen in the southeast parallel to the horizon below Pegasus and Pisces and is composed of a circle of stars for the head and a rounded rectangle for the body connected by a thin neck. A good star map would be useful in finding this constellation.

Cetus is currently the home, of the could-have-been-"tenth planet" Eris (pronounced EE-ris). Initially designated 2003 UB313 by the scientific community, its discoverer called it Xena after television's "Warrior Princess" and who also dubbed its moon Gabrielle for her longtime companion. Again, the powers that be stepped in and named the moon "Dysnomia" (pronounced DIS-no-mia) after the Greek goddess of lawlessness.

Note that the star of the Xena series was Lucy Lawless. We will let that stand where it wants to.

Don't forget the transit of Mercury on Wednesday, Nov. 8. Jim Garretson will have a telescope set up outside Barnett Hall at McCook Community College starting at about 1:15 p.m. CST to view the transit.

Next time, the loneliest star in the sky.

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