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Jimmy Westlake: Three leaps of the gazelle

I love star lore.

The legends and stories attached to the stars carry us back centuries and tell us not only about the stars but also about the stargazers of old.

With that in mind, I’d like to share with you a story about three pairs of stars that you can spot almost overhead as darkness falls in the late spring. Modern star charts indicate that these stars are the toes of the Great Bear, Ursa Major, but to the Arabs of the Middle Ages, these stars were the “Kafzah al Thiba,” or, the “Three Leaps of the Gazelle.”



To locate them, we first need to find the Great Bear herself.

This time of year, Ursa Major is awkwardly hanging upside down, high overhead in the northern sky, so try this: spread a blanket on the ground and lay down on your back with your feet pointed south. Now, as you glance back toward the north, you can see Ursa Major right side up, without getting a crick in your neck.



The seven bright stars of the Big Dipper should pop right out. Our asterism called the Big Dipper forms the hindquarters and tail of the Great Bear, Ursa Major. Just in front of the Big Dipper’s bowl, you can find the star Muscida marking the Bear’s nose.

The long tail of the celestial bear curves off to the east and points to Arcturus, the brightest star of spring. The two stars at the end of the Big Dipper’s bowl always point toward our North Star, Polaris. The legs and toes of the Great Bear extend upward from the Dipper, tickling the sky’s overhead point. The three pairs of stars that mark the Bear’s toes are very distinctive and easy to spot.

The famous Arabian astronomer named Ulugh Beg (ooloog bayg) first recorded these six stars as the “Kafzah al Thiba,” or the “Three Leaps of the Gazelle,” back in the early 1400s, not long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

The gazelle was imagined as grazing among the stars that form our faint constellation of Leo Minor, the Little Lion. When the Big Lion, Leo, swished his tail across the sky, it startled the gazelle, who then made three quick leaps off to the east and left behind three pairs of glowing hoof prints. The faint mist of stars that forms our constellation of Coma Berenices represents the tuft of hair on the end of Leo’s swishy tail.

I imagine this comical celestial drama playing out in the spring stars each time that I spot the “Kafzah al Thiba.” Give it a try next time you’re out under the starry sky.

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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