Jimmy Westlake: See autumn’s trio of triangles
Steamboat Springs — Nestled in between the constellations of Andromeda, Perseus and Pisces is a delightful little trio of stellar triangles, visible on crisp November evenings. Each triangle has an interesting history all its own.
The uppermost triangle is the only constellation in the sky that looks exactly like what it is supposed to be. No imagination required here to pick out the constellation of Triangulum, the Triangle.
Ancient Greek astronomers invented Triangulum, perhaps to honor the brilliant work of the great Greek mathematician Pythagoras. Every high school student who has suffered through a geometry class has studied the Pythagorean theorem: The sum of the squares of the lengths of the legs in any right triangle equals the square of the length of the hypotenuse. One needs to look no farther than the stars of Triangulum to be reminded of this important theorem.
Of the 88 constellations, only 10 are smaller than Triangulum. Like its much larger neighbor, Andromeda, Triangulum boasts a big spiral galaxy within its borders: M33, or the Pinwheel Galaxy
I’ve glimpsed M33 with the naked eye on exceptionally clear, dark nights, but using binoculars makes it much easier to see. It is smaller and more distant than Andromeda’s famed galaxy, M31, but at 3 million light-years away, M33 is still a member of our local group of galaxies.
Just below the southern tip of Triangulum is another distinctive triangle of stars. This one marks the head and horns of Aries the Ram, the first constellation in the zodiac.
The brightest star in this triangle is named Hamal, meaning “the head of the sheep.” Our constellation of Aries also dates back to the time of the early Greeks, who imagined these stars to be the ram that bore the Golden Fleece, the treasure sought by Jason and the Argonauts in their epic journey.
Just below the northern end of Triangulum is a third little triangle of stars. While this tiny asterism officially lies within the boundaries of Aries, the Ram, it has been identified throughout the ages with a number of now defunct constellations.
It first appeared as an asterism separate from Aries in 1612 on a star chart published by Petrus Plancius as Apes, the Bee. In 1624, it appeared on a star chart published by Jacob Bartsch as Vespa, the Wasp. Then, in 1674, Frenchman Ignace-Gaston Pardies resurrected the little triangle as Lilium, the Lilly.
It appeared one more time as Musca, the Fly, on the famous star atlas published in 1690 by Johannes Hevelius. After that, this little trio of stars was reabsorbed into the constellation of Aries, and it appears as though that will be its permanent home. You can think of it as a fly, wasp or bee pestering the heavenly ram.
Step outside at about 9 p.m. in early November and face the eastern sky. There you will find autumn’s trio of little triangles: Triangulum, Aries and the star pattern formerly known as The Fly.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out his astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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