Starwatch: A tiny crown or a cereal bowl?

August 18, 2018

Across the celestial dome throughout the course of the year, there are big and bright constellations like Orion the Hunter and Scorpius the Scorpion. They are wonderful to gaze upon, but personally I’ve always had a liking for diminutive but distinct constellations. One of them is Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown, available in the evening sky since spring, but now it’s beginning its gradual exit in the late summer.

There’s still plenty of time to see it though, through at least September. Currently it’s hanging in the western sky and fairly easy to find.

Corona Borealis is Latin for “the Little Crown,” and a case can certainly be made for how the Greeks and Romans saw it as a crown of stellar jewels in the heavens. It’s also really easy to see how the Australians see it as a boomerang. In China it’s known as a cord, and I have to confess I really don’t get that at all.

According to a Shawnee Indian legend, the stars of Corona Borealis are the homes of maidens that occasionally descend down to Earth and dance about. To me, though, it looks like a little cereal bowl.

However you want to see Corona Borealis, look for it in the western sky just to the upper left of the much larger constellation Bootes the Hunting Farmer. Actually, Bootes resembles a giant kite more than a farmer in pursuit of the constellation Ursa Major the Big Bear.

The brightest star in the evening sky shines at the tail of the kite. That’s Arcturus. One of the classic adages of stargazing is the saying “arc to Arcturus.” Just extend the curved handle of the Big Dipper beyond the end of the handle with your mind’s eye and you’ll run right into Arcturus.

The brightest star in Corona Borealis is Alphecca, pronounced al-feck-ah. It’s a hot bluish-white star about 75 light-years or 435 trillion miles away. It’s so far away that the light we see from Alphecca this week left that star when World War II was still raging on.

According to Greek mythology, Corona Borealis was the crown of Ariadne. So who is Ariadne? The story goes like this. Ariadne was the daughter of the evil king of Crete, who sacrificed seven young men and seven young women to the horrible monster the Minotaur once a year. This beast had the body of a bull and an incredibly ugly human head. Sound like anybody you know?

Anyway, one year, as the men and women were being led to the Minotaur, Ariadne made eye contact with Theseus, one of the men being led to slaughter and poof! It was love at first sight. Wasting no time, Ariadne secretly armed Theseus with a sword. Theseus ripped the Minotaur to shreds and dashed over to where Ariadne was waiting for him. The couple quickly hopped in a boat and stopped overnight on the island of Naxos.

They probably should have had some premarital counseling and got to know each other a little better because it just didn’t work out. Theseus ditched Ariadne, leaving her sobbing uncontrollably on a beach at Naxos.

The island of Naxos was run by Bacchus, the god of wine. The wine-sipping god fell in love with Ariadne, big-time. Once again Ariadne immediately fell in love, but with Bacchus it was real love. Bacchus and Ariadne were eventually married, and he gave her a very extravagant gift. He took off his own crown and threw it so high into the sky that it sprouted stars, symbolizing his everlasting love for the princess.

Ariadne has long since left us, but her crown shines on in the western sky tonight.

CELESTIAL HUGGING THIS WEEK: The first quarter waxing gibbous moon will be passing by the planet Saturn and above the constellation Sagittarius the Archer Sunday through Tuesday evening this week in the early evening southern sky. Later this week, on Wednesday and Thursday evening, the near-full moon will have a close encounter with the very bright planet Mars.

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