Jimmy Westlake: The king and queen of the sky
Many moons ago, when I was a knee-high astronomer, I used to stargaze with my best friend and next-door neighbor, Nicky.
Although we really didn’t know the official constellations very well, there were many star patterns with which we became very familiar, and we referred to them by our own descriptive names.
One of our favorites was a distinctive pattern of five bright stars that we called “The W.” Every autumn, “The W” appeared prominently in the northeastern sky before our bedtime.
I’m not sure when I learned that our “W” was. In fact, the astronomers’ constellation called Cassiopeia, the Queen.
The five stars of our “W” form the outline of Cassiopeia’s chair, hanging upside down in the sky. From top to bottom, the names of the stars in the “W” are Caph, Schedar, Gamma, Ruchbah and Segin.
The queen of the sky was sentenced to cling to her upside down throne for eternity for the crime of boasting that her daughter Andromeda was more beautiful than the daughters of Poseidon, or, so the story goes.
Just to the upper left of the “W” of Cassiopeia’s chair sparkles another pattern of five stars that Nicky and I called “The Upside Down House,” for it looked, more than anything, like a child’s drawing of a box-like house with its pointy roof aimed downward.
Little did we know then that “The Upside Down House” was known to the rest of the astronomical world as Cepheus the King and Cassiopeia’s husband.
I learned later that the star at the top right corner of “The Upside Down House” was a famous variable star named Delta Cephei. For my ninth grade high school science project, I watched and photographed Delta’s light changes and used this information to determine its distance from Earth, nearly a thousand light years, as I recall.
Another of the King’s stars that I enjoy observing to this day is the star located between the two corners of “The Upside Down House,” a star that the great 18th century astronomer Sir William Herschel nicknamed “The Garnet Star,” because of its deep red color.
It is not only one of the most colorful stars visible to the unaided eye, but it is one of the largest and most luminous stars in our whole galaxy. Also known as Mu Cephei, this star radiates more than 200,000 times the energy of our sun and, if placed at the center of our solar system, would extend well out beyond the orbit of the planet Jupiter.
The king and queen of the sky turned out to be far more interesting and colorful than Nicky’s and my “W” and “Upside Down House” ever were. You can spot them both this month in the northeastern sky, well before your bedtime.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Steamboat Springs Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper. Check out Jimmy’s astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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