Tuesday, August 14 , 2018, 4:25 am | Overcast 67º


Dennis Mammana: Stars of Springtime Put on a Show

View the stars of springtime after dark this week. Click to view larger
View the stars of springtime after dark this week. (Creators.com illustration)

While you are watching Wednesday morning’s wonderful total lunar eclipse — please check the last two weeks’ columns for details — make sure you take some time to scan the rest of the sky. During the early morning totality, the sky will darken enough for us see all the early evening stars of the coming season.

One of my favorite stellar groupings in this springtime sky will shine high in the southern sky during totality. It’s named Boötes, after the herdsman who eternally shepherds the polar stars in their daily and annual revolutions around the North Celestial Pole.

Boötes is marked by the yellowish-orange star known as Arcturus — the fourth brightest in all the heavens and the brightest in the northern half of the sky. Located 37 light-years away (“only” about 220 trillion miles), this is a star 27 times the diameter of our sun.

You can search the area for a herdsman if you like, but I think Boötes looks more like a kite, with Arcturus forming its base where a tail streams nicely off to the side; or an ice cream cone, with Arcturus at its pointy base and a single scoop outlined by the stars above.

High in the eastern sky to the east of Boötes will appear Hercules, the strong man — famous in ancient Greek mythology for his 12 labors.

Hercules outlines the fifth largest constellation in the sky, but because it doesn’t contain any very bright stars, it’s not particularly prominent. You’ll probably be able to locate its central “keystone” of stars without too much trouble, however. And as a native son of Pennsylvania (the Keystone State), I always make sure I proudly show this figure to stargazers.

Between these two star groupings we find one of the prettiest constellations in this springtime sky: Corona Borealis, the northern crown.

Corona Borealis is an ancient constellation that symbolizes a jeweled crown or wreath worn by Ariadne, daughter of King Minos of Crete, when she wed Bacchus. Another story suggests that its stars represent a braid of golden twine. Personally, I think of it as a second scoop of ice cream that fell off of the ice cream cone to its west.

Whatever the story, Corona Borealis is one of the smallest constellations in the sky. In fact, it ranks 72nd out of 88 constellations, and its brightest star — Alphecca — isn’t terribly bright at all; it’s even fainter than Polaris, the North Star.

Finally, lower in the eastern sky, look for the sparkling jewel known as, the brightest star of Lyra, the harp. Vega is followed low in the northeast by Deneb. Together the two and one other companion star form the Summer Triangle.

Not only do stars appear during this early morning sky-watching session; planets do as well. The bright planet Jupiter will appear one-third of the way up in the southeast, and the fainter planet Mars will appear to its lower left. Don’t confuse Mars with the reddish-orange star Antares, which will appear just below it; the name Antares means “rival of Mars”!

Be sure to look away from the totally eclipsed moon from time to time for a terrific preview of the upcoming springtime sky.

Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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