The month of May is a fine time for flowers and colors – and even getting married! There once was an old tradition where children took ribbons and ‘danced around the Maypole’ in circles, weaving patterns around a central focal point. Before the month is over, why not celebrate the flowers and the dance of the stars around the northern pole as well? Let’s take another look at a constellation that’s becoming very visible at this time of year as we visit “Kings and Queens and Royal Things”…
Right now, as evening begins, the constellation of Cepheus is directly below Polaris for the northern hemisphere. As the sky darkens, this collection of five moderately bright stars will slowly turn counter-clockwise around Polaris… moving first seeming eastward, only to rise high above the pole star during the late hours of the night and begin moving towards the west as the Sun rises. While you are looking for a place where you can see the northern horizon well, listen to the wind and you’ll hear the voice of of the night. It has a story for you…
“As legend tells it, there once was a king of ancient Aethiopia named Cepheus – whose Queen was the beautiful Cassiopeia. They had many children together and one of Cassiopeia’s favorite places was the royal garden. Now, Cepheus loved to please his wife, so in this garden he contructed her a temple with a pointed roof where she and the children could spend their days among the many flowers. Cassiopeia’s favorite bloom was the iris, and to this day you can still find the “Iris Nebula”, (NGC 7023) blooming nearby.”
“Over the years Cepheus and Cassiopeia had many children together and take their place among the stars. When their strong sons would go out hunting, Cassiopeia was said to have lighted a candle in the window the the garden temple to lead them home on a dark night. To this very day, its deep red glow can be seen as Mu Cephi, Herschel’s Garnet Star.”
Time passed and Cassiopeia gave birth to a daughter – Andromeda. So beautiful was the baby girl, that Cassiopeia would sit in her chair under a palm tree on the west side of the garden temple where she could show her daughter’s loveliness to the gods. Zeus thought Andromeda was beautiful as well, and so he bestowed upon her the “Little Cloud” we now know as the Andromeda Galaxy.
However, Cassiopeia was far too proud of her daughter and she boasted once too often on her good looks – proclaiming her to be even more beautiful than Zeus’ wife, Hera. This did not sit well with the Queen of the gods, so she demanded that Andromeda be sacrificed to Cetus, the Sea Monster – or marry her monster son, Calibos.
In order to save her daughter, Cassiopeia called upon one of Zeus’ mortal sons, Perseus to save her… But first Perseus had to win his winged horse, Pegasus, and defeat the Medusa. In order to gain his opportunity, Perseus had to answer a riddle. What is joined together but has no end?”
The answer was the double pearl ring worn by Calibos, and when Pereus retrieved the ring, the gods put it up in the sky where it remains as the fine double star cluster, NGC 869 and 884. Perseus then flew away on Pegasus to defeat the Medusa, and the gods placed her head in the sky. To this day, you can still see her eye – Algol – changing brightness rapidly and waiting to turn unwary watchers, and Sea Monsters into stone.”
So go out, before the Moon captures the sky in the nights to come and hides the faint stars. Are there any iris in bloom where you are? Can you find the Royal House of Cepheus? Watch as the night moves and see how it turns around the pole star, just like children dancing around a maypole. Did you know that for each night that passes, our sky progress by six minutes? For example, when you locate Cepheus, make note of the time you first spotted it and its position. Now, look again an hour later. This is where you will find Cepheus 10 days from now at the time you first located it! Check Cepheus’ position 3 hours later and this is where it will appear a month from now at your initial time.
Isn’t SkyWatching wonderful?!
Many thanks to Torsten Bronger for the Cepheus constellation map, Uranometria historical Cepheus image, the “Iris Nebula” courtesy of Kent Wood, the “Garnet Star” courtesy of Francesco Malafarina, Cassiopeia courtesy of the University of Florida, M31 courtesy of Bill Schoening, Vanessa Harvey/REU program/NOAO/AURA/NSF and the “Double Cluster” courtesy of N.A.Sharp/NOAO/AURA/NSF. We thank you!