Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Tale of Two Clusters in Taurus

Hyades - Do you see the "V?"
Don't worry, Taurus the Bull isn't sick.  He's just got a cluster of stars on his face and another cluster on his back. 

Finding the Bull is pretty easy.  Look for a long, skinny “V” shape above and to the right of Orion. The “V” marks Taurus’ head and long horns as he is about to trample brawny hunter.

If you are still having trouble, find the three stars which mark Orion’s belt and use them as pointer stars. Connect the three dots and continue this line to the right. This line will take you just under a bright, orange-colored star. That is Aldebaran, or the bull’s eye.

How you find the clusters
You'll notice Aldebaran is redder than other stars – “A ruby of dazzling hue.”  And if you look closely you'll see lot of fainter stars all around Aldebaran and the "V" shape.  These are the Hyades star cluster.  All of these stars (except Aldebaran) are about the same distance away and were formed from the same nebula.  They're the closest open cluster in the skies and that's why you can see them with the naked eye.  The ancient Greeks thought they were the five daughters of Atlas who cried all the time over the death of their brother Hyas.  Ever since then, the Hyades have been associated with rainy seasons.   

The name Aldebaran is an Arabic word loosely translated as “The Follower”. What is Aldebaran following? Just continue that line from Orion’s belt past Aldebaran and you will see the most impressive cluster of stars, the Pleiades.

Close up of both clusters
 Maybe you’ve heard of the Pleiades from their alias, the Seven Sisters. At first glance, the stars in the Pleiades look more like a little cloud the size of the full moon. But upon closer examination, you may detect five, six, or seven individual stars in the group. With binoculars you can see approximately 50 stars in the cluster, and with a telescope you can count all 500 of them.  We'll talk more about the Seven Sisters next week, so tune in!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Aries the Ram

Aries is a small, but easy to find zodiac constellation visible in the winter sky. The star picture only has 3 bright stars but they form a distinct obtuse triangle in the sky 25 degrees to the right (or west) of the Seven Sisters star cluster. And this year, the bright planet Jupiter is nearby (just down and to the left after sunset). The brightest star is named Hamal, the head of the sheep.

For such a tiny constellation, Aries has an extensive mythology. Part one occurs when a king, with a son named Phrixus and daughter named Helle, leaves his wife and remarries a mean and nasty woman. The new wife is jealous of the children and plans to sacrifice them to the gods. Talk about your wicked step-mothers! At the last moment their biological mother sends a magical, winged, golden ram down to fly them away to the east. Unfortunately the daughter falls off of the flying ram to her death in the Hellespont (named in her honor).

Phrixus lands safely and sacrifices the ram to Zeus (thanks O Flying Ram) and gives the golden fleece to another King named Aeetes (whose daughter he eventually marries). The King put the fleece under constant protection guarded by a fierce dragon that never slept. The stage was now set for a man named Jason to make an epic journey to steal this Golden Fleece.

To be continued…

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Aries as the Golden Fleece

Not long after King Aeetes got the Golden Fleece, an expedition was formed to take it from him. A man named Jason, heir to the throne, needed to accomplish a dangerous task to boost his self-esteem. As a kid he read countless stories or daring deeds and courageous adventures. However, he was a rather wimpy kid who was picked on even in kindergarten. When he heard about the Golden Fleece, Jason vowed to face all dangers and bring it bravely back to Greece. So he gathered a group of explorers called the Argonauts to go with him (The Argonauts were named after the ship - Argo - that bore them to the fleece. The group included such A-listers as Heracles, Orpheus, Castor and Pollux.  The Argo was also an old constellation covering the southern sky now broken up into 6 modern constellations).

Medea, a woman possessed
After facing Harpies, pointy rocks, and mild seasickness Jason made it to the King Aeetes. Aeetes, of course, didn't want to give the fleece away. It still had that new fleece smell. But the King's daughter Medea, caught under a spell from Aphrodite, stood up for Jason. Medea helped him plow a field with fire-breathing bulls, defeat warriors that grew from dragon's teeth, and put a stalwart dragon to sleep to finally gain the fleece. In fact, Medea did all the work - mixing potions to entrance her enemies. Jason took the fleece and Medea back home with him where they did not live happily ever after. Once Aphrodite's spell wore off, Medea and Jason broke up... Alas, love is so fickle.