Great Star Patterns I Have Known

June 23, 2013


Dippers come in many sizes.Big Dipper
The most famous of all the dots ever connected. So well-known that people pretend to see it even when they don’t. There are seven stars, eight if you count correctly. One of them is tiny, little, and wee, and is attempting to hide behind the handle.

America calls it the dipper, which is a wonderfully descriptive name that originates from Africa. Astronomical nomenclature is just one of the many fringe benefits of slave ownership. Back when slavery was more fashionable, a peg-legged banjo picker wrote a diddy about finding the way northward to where the people didn’t hate freedom nearly as much, and the dipper figured strongly in the refrain. Black folks recalled the words to the song which helped guide them, so they could sufficiently distance themselves from the sound of Dixie being whistled.

Like the gods, the Big Dipper has about as many names as there are peoples. It’s the wagon to some, or the plow to others, or the wagon to some others. The Wagon is a pretty popular choice. It’s one of those super long-tongued type wagons, like the trailers that the big dump trucks are pulling around now days. The tongue is bent in the middle like maybe they turned a corner too tight and took out a utility pole.

Iroquois and other linguistically related native tribes call it the Hunters and the Bear. The tiny illusive star in the handle is a little dog named Hold Tight because he’s kind of a wussy dog when it comes to bear hunting so he “holds tight” to one of the hunters, peeking out from between his legs.
Could we go after rabbits next time?
The bear meanwhile is shot full of arrows and bleeding which is kind of gruesome but then these ancient mythical stories almost always have a hero gouging out his own eyes, or accidentally marrying his own mother, or getting himself and his mother stabbed to death at a wedding reception right in the middle of an interesting plot line, or something equally annoying. Anyway the dipper dips down to the ground on crisp autumn evenings, getting bear blood all over the trees, turning many of them lovely shades of red and brown. It’s a competing theory to the whole leaf chloroplast-photosynthesis thing.

The interesting thing about M51 is the handsome satellite galaxy and the bridge connecting them.Ursa Major has several nice galaxies in the vicinity of the Big Dipper. But the most awesome is M51, which looks like it is in the dipper but is actually just outside of that district thanks to some creative gerrymandering by power hungry radicals in the IAU. It’s in Canes Venatici (a couple of bigger meaner dogs) and you should scope this guy out, the bigger scope the better of course. It’s called the Whirlpool and oh man, you should see it in Dan’s 41.25 inch, largest portable telescope in the world. We say portable but it’s really semi-portable, as in portable if you own a semi-truck and trailer. In Dan’s scope M51 looks like a good long exposure photograph. On an exceptional night you could swear you see someone out there looking back.
Yours truly taking a turn at polishing Dan's 41.25 inch mirror, using an 18 inch tool.
Little Dipper
Sometimes a Big Dipper is way too much dipper so there is a little one up higher and upside down dripping into the big one half the time. The star on the very back end of the handle is Polaris, The North Star, The Chief of Stars, The Guide of My People, The One Who Does Not Care To Go Jogging. It is pretty easy to locate. For starters, ask a hundred people to point it out. It’s none of those so that narrows it down.

Rare photo of the famous John Dobson polishing a mirror on a barrel top. He swears he never uses a barrel top. Photo by Brad Snowder.Dobson’s Hole
If you have a dobsonian telescope mount, and I think the majority of star hoppers have or have had at least one, then the higher up in the sky you go the more difficult it becomes to manage the scope. Centering on something straight up on the zenith can be more frustrating than the effort is worth, especially if the scope’s mount isn’t the clock drive tracking type, and most dobs aren’t. We sometimes call the area near the zenith Dobson’s Hole. Equatorial mounts have a similar problem viewing near the celestial pole but those mounts now days typically have computerized go-to, slewing, Twitter, hot and cold running widgets, and a meter that shows how good of time you are having at any given moment. Even so, the farther you get away from the hole, i.e. the axis of evil rotation, the more confident you will appear to the other geeks.

In between the two dippers is a long string of dim stars that continues out and then curls back around the smaller dipper. It’s the dragon and he may be dim but he’s a pretty damn big deal. Way back in olden times when life was mostly about putting huge stones in a circle by day, and making up crap about the stars by night, Draco was farther north. In fact one of the Draco stars, Thubin, which is smack dab in the middle of his body, was the North Star back then. That’s right, being the big boss of all the stars is way too important for one eternal leader, so there is a consortium and they take turns.
I think they misread the instructions.
Someday thousands of years from now, when archaeologists are digging around and wondering how in the hell we could have missed that smart phones were plotting to overthrow us, the bright star Vega will have a go at sitting in the captain’s chair. Then it gets passed around to a few lesser known dignitaries, and finally back to good ol’ Thubin again. At that time we’ll probably come out of our caves and build another Stonehenge. This time from an IKEA kit.

Why Miss Hathaway. You are looking quite camelopardaline this evening.Camelopardalis
This groups of stars is most notable in that the name is fun to say. Camelopardalis, Camelopardalis, Camelopardalis. You might think the name has something to do with camels. But no, it’s a giraffe. An even more fun word to say is camelopardaline, which means giraffe-like, as in long-necked.

Perseus, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Andromeda, Pegasus, and Cetus (the kraken)
The beautiful queen Cassy spent all of her time bragging about her hotness (remembering younger days I take it). As everyone knows, gods always call for the kraken to be released in such cases. No surprise there, they released the kraken for parking tickets back then. So up comes Cetus from the depths, aka the kraken, and he typically shows up drunk, trashes his hotel suite and leaves without paying. The queen’s big plan was to simply distract him by sacrificing the life of her daughter Andromeda. Sacrificing daughters was just how these things got resolved back then and besides the queen thought Andie was a bit of a skank for dating Perseus. As for Percy, he’s a total klutz but he manages to show up in time and save the day thanks to Pegasus, the real hero. This story is way too old for copyright laws so you can make the movie however you want. I’d leave out the mechanical owl.
He must get tired of eating seafood.
Cassy’s husband Cepheus is the king but he doesn’t do much for the story. I don’t even know why he’s in the story but one of his stars is interesting in that it can’t make up its mind how bright to be and everyone seems to think they know just how far away it is. I mean, the story of the kraken is cool and all, yaay for the kraken, but the Cepheid variable stars pretty much unlocked the second biggest mystery in the whole history of the Universe. Meanwhile we’re still working on why McCain picked Palin.

Okay so Cepheus has another interesting star down between his legs. It’s called the Garnet Star because it is about as red as a star can be. I mean it is red, as in, it is rrrrrrred baby. If you want to see just how red a red star can be, then this is your star because it is red I’m telling you, red.

Big eyes and squids. I don't get it.Perseus is shaped like a big squid. Ironic since he fights a squidly monster. Perseus has starry tentacles stretching and wrapping around the whole region like some sort of sick Japanese animation. Or so I’ve heard. Floating above the appendages is the Double Cluster, a naked eye matching pair of open clusters side by side. It looks great in binoculars and it is an easy satisfying target for beginner astrophotography.
The Double Cluster in Perseus, NGC 869 and NGC 884. Photo by Brad Snowder.
I still don't get it.The most famous star in Perseus is Algol, which literally means The Ghoul, but a more appropriate translation is The Demon. It’s not so much an eater of the dead as it is a general agent of evil. Not as aggressive as a balrog maybe, more like a ninth level clerk or an intern or something. Either way Algol is suspect because it changes brightness noticeably. About every three days it goes dim for a few hours because of another evil minion who passes in front. Even the ancients could see that Algol varied and they didn’t like it one bit. It wasn’t proper protocol for a star in their point of view. So Algol was deemed an unlucky star, one to be avoided. When Algol was high in the night sky they would stay indoors, or at least wear a hat when going out.

Andromeda is an odd constellation in that she depends heavily on stars in the neighboring constellations for completing her pattern. But she makes up for any cartographic shortcomings by giving us one of the best amateur targets of all time, the Andromeda Galaxy, M31. It appears six times the size of the Moon in the sky, although in real life it is even bigger. You can find it with the naked eye, maybe even under city lights if the transparency of the sky is sufficient. It’s easy, start with the Great Square of Pegasus and hop towards Cassiopeia and then follow those two stars up to those other two stars and follow those up to that other star and then it’s somewhere around there.
M31 with M110 below the disk and M32 embedded behind the upper left mid-section of the disk.
There are a couple of obvious dwarf galaxies orbiting Andromeda, M32 and M110.
I suppose we should probably stop calling the little buggers dwarf galaxies. They’re diameter-impaired is all. Mass-challenged is what they are.

Carpe Noctem

Great Star Patterns – Part 2

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