Stargazing: Celestial throne is 'home' to Cassiopeia

Stargazing: Celestial throne is 'home' to Cassiopeia

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Each year about this time, I try to write about one of the heaven’s most distinctive constellations since it is now situated in the high northeastern sky and is most easily recognized by its unique shape of the letter “W” although the “W” is now tilted a little bit to its right side.

This is a very, very old constellation named Cassiopeia, the Queen, and it dates back as far as 3500 B.C. In Greek mythology, Cassiopeia was the wife of Cepheus, the king of Ethiopia and the mother of a beautiful daughter, Andromeda. (You know the story about her).

Other than its shape, Cassiopeia is very easy to find since it lies slightly below and to the left side of Polaris, the North Star, directly across from Ursa Major and its very famous asterism the Big Dipper now in the high northwestern sky.

For beginning stargazers, sweeping the heavens in and around Cassiopeia with binoculars will reveal a multitude of stars since the constellation lies almost entirely in the Milky Way.

The five primary stars that form the “W” are easy to remember if you use the mnemonic BAGDE.

This word is made up of the first Greek letter names of the principal stars, Beta, Alpha, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon.

As you look at the constellation, the star at the top right of the “W” is Beta Cas; the star just below it is Alpha Cas then Gamma Cas just to its left and then comes Delta Cas and Epsilon Cas.

The star Alpha Cas has been measured to be 181 light years from our Sun while Beta Cas is a comparatively near neighbor, only 41 light years away.

While searching the stars in and around Cassiopiea, look just to the east of Epsilon Cas and see if you can find a side-by-side cluster of stars.

This double cluster does not belong to Cassiopeia but is located in the constellation of Perseus, the Hero.

The first cluster you come to will be New Galactic Catalog (NGC) 869 and the one just above it is NGC 884.

A great astronomer, Tycho Brahe, found one of the most famous stars ever observed in Cassiopeia back in November 1572.

The star, given the name “Tycho’s Star” suddenly burst into view and increased in brilliance to the point it was visible in broad daylight. By December of that year, the star began to fade and quickly disappeared entirely.

Although Brahe positioned the star with reasonable accuracy, no optical trace of it has been found in modern times even using some of the largest land based telescopes available to astronomers.

If you’d like to try and find Queen Cassiopeia’s “husband,” look just to her right.

Cepheus is represented by a formation of stars that resemble a square house with a pointed roof.

Right now, the queen is sitting upright on her throne, gazing, I imagine, at herself in a mirror.

One of my readers who apparently has a very good memory, e-mailed me about a column I wrote back on August of this year regarding NASA’s new Artemis program returning astronauts to the moon and the reader was interested in the program’s name.

The term Artemis comes from the sister of Apollo who is also recognized as the goddess of the moon. The Artemis program, as I said in my August column, will be returning astronauts (including the first woman). If all goes as planned, the astronauts will set foot on the lunar surface where no one else has gone before.

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