Jimmy Westlake: Wolves in June’s sky get no respect
Lupus the wolf is so far south some stars never crack our horizon
Steamboat Springs — Some constellations get no respect. Take, for example, the beautiful but often overlooked constellation of Lupus the Wolf, which is well placed for observing on warm June evenings. The origin of this far-southern constellation can be traced back at least 2,200 years to the time of the ancient Greek civilization. Back then, it was known as Therion (the Beast) and was considered an integral part of the neighboring constellation Centaurus, the Centaur, who has the beast skewered on his spear.
It was one of Ptolemy’s original 48 constellations, published in the first century A.D. That’s when it gained its identity as a wolf rather than a generic “beast.” In fact, the name Lupus is the Latin word for wolf.
The constellation of the wolf, mimicking real life, seems to get very little respect, in spite of the fact that it contains many bright stars of second and third magnitude. Perhaps this is because of its unfortunate position in the sky, sandwiched between the truly magnificent constellations of Centaurus, to the west, and Scorpius, to the east. It lies so far to the south that some of its stars never rise above our horizon.
That hasn’t always been the case. The perpetual wobbling of the Earth on its axis in a 26,000-year cycle has carried this part of the sky southward and partially out of view since the time of the ancient Greeks. It will return in all its glory in a few millennia.
To see the stars of Lupus, you’ll need a clear view of the sky down to the southern horizon. Facing south at about 10 p.m. in mid-June, find the bright orange star Antares flashing in the southeastern sky and the bright blue star Spica twinkling in the southwestern sky. The stars of Centaurus and Lupus fill the sky between Antares and Spica, along the southern horizon. The outline of Lupus more closely resembles a squashed hourglass than it does a wolf, but its bright stars make the pattern easy to find.
If your sky is exceptionally dark and clear and your view to the south is unobstructed, you might spot Lupus’ brightest star, Kakkab, only 2 degrees above the horizon line. Kakkab is an Arabic name that means “Star of Fortune.” From the mid-northern latitude of Colorado, one is fortunate indeed to catch a glimpse of this star.
Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have been published all across the world. Visit Westlake’s website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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