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Jimmy Westlake: See Bootes — the heavenly cowboy





You can locate Bootes, the bear chaser, high up in our northeastern sky around 9:30 p.m. this month. Just follow the arc of the Big Dipper’s handle to the bright star Arcturus and then trace out the kite-shaped figure of Bootes. (Photo by Jimmy Westlake, 2012)

There are 88 constellations in our sky, and only one of them begins with the letter B. It’s Bootes, the Herdsman (pronounced boh-oh-teez), and it could be the most ancient of our constellations.

The name of Bootes has been uttered in this form for at least 3,000 years, as it first appears in Homer’s Odyssey. At that time, however, it most likely referred to the name of Bootes’ brightest star, Arcturus, rather than the entire constellation.

In Greek mythology, Bootes was considered a shepherd or a herdsman, chasing the Big and Little Bears around the pole of the sky with his two leashed pooches, Asterion and Chara. These two hunting dogs are found in their own small constellation nearby, named Canes Venatici.



Bootes is often identified with the Greek hunter Arcas, the son of Zeus and a mortal woman named Callisto. When Zeus’ jealous wife, Hera, found out about the love child, she changed Callisto into a bear, destined to roam the forest forever.

When Arcas grew up, he was out in the forest one day and saw a huge bear running toward him. He prepared to fire an arrow to kill the bear, not realizing that it was his own mother who had recognized him from afar.



Zeus intervened just in time, changed Arcas into a little bear, grabbed both bears by their short, stubby tails, slung them round and round and up into the heavens where they were transformed into the stars of our constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the Big and Little Bears. This launching technique explains how the celestial bears’ tails became so long.

Locating Bootes and its bright star Arcturus is a snap. Just face the northeastern sky in the early evening and use the handle of the nearby Big Dipper as a pointer — follow the arc of the curved handle to find Arcturus. The stars of Bootes form the outline of kite-shaped figure, with Arcturus marking the bottom point of the kite.

Arcturus is the brightest star visible in the sky’s northern hemisphere and the second brightest star visible overall from northwest Colorado. Only the Dog Star Sirius appears brighter in our sky. This prominent orange star is already in the advanced stages of life and has swelled up into an orange giant, 34 times bigger than our sun.

The name Arcturus is derived from the Greek word for bear, arktos. Literally, the name Arcturus translates into “the Bear Watcher” or “Bear Chaser.” Bootes is a cowboy, of sorts, chasing the two bears around the pole of the sky in a celestial bear round-up.

The star Arcturus became famous when its light was focused through a telescope and used to switch on the lights of the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago. This particular star was chosen because the starlight that arrived in 1933 was thought to have left Arcturus 40 years earlier during the previous Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

Modern measurements, however, place the star’s distance at 37 light years instead of 40. Oops.

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 Jimmy’s astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.


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