It is said, “No matter how long the winter, spring is sure to follow.” And when spring arrives, robins chirp, daffodils bloom, butterflies dance, and the night sky unveil its awesome beauty “at the dead hour of the night, when the world is hushed in sleep and all is still.” Spring beckons a new set of stars majestically adorning the heaven as if it is a sublime gallery of arts.
Once again, we will use the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) as the signpost to help us navigate through the myriad of stars and constellations patterned in the sky on a quilt of lights. Starting from the handle of the Dipper, follow the arc of stars outlining the handle away from the bowl until your eyes land on the brilliantly sparkling star Arcturus, the “Guardian of the Bears.” This topaz colored red giant, dominating the sky as the fourth brightest star, is at the tail of the kite-shaped constellation Boötes the Herdsman.
Follow the same arc farther to the prominent blue-white colored “gem of a star” Spica in the constellation Virgo the Maiden. With her feet planted on the eastern horizon, Virgo is one of the largest constellations, albeit very nondescript, and Spica is her brightest star. In fact, the brightness of Spica makes it fairly easy to locate the constellation.
West of Boötes is Leo the Lion. The constellation’s luminary Regulus the Lion’s Heart can be located by using the pointers of the Dipper in reverse. It lies at the base of a group of six stars shaped like a “sickle” or backward question mark that traces the lion’s mane. Regulus is regularly occulted by the Moon. To the east of sickle is a right triangle of stars that also belong to Leo. At the eastern point of this triangle is Denebola the Lion’s Tail.
Midway between Regulus and Pollux in Gemini is the diminutive group named Cancer the Crab. Centered in this group is a hazy patch of light that binoculars reveal as the Beehive star cluster (nebula) or Praesepe (Latin for “manger”). On the star chart it is labeled as M44. The uppercase M refers to the eighteenth century astronomer Charles Messier who catalogued over one hundred wonders in the sky.
In the direction of Virgo, between Arcturus and Leo, is the constellation Coma Berenices. It is also known as Berenice’s Hair, after Queen Berenice II of Egypt who sacrificed her long hair to Aphrodite for the victorious return of her husband Ptolemy III from Assyria. It used to be a star in Leo before; it was later promoted to the rank of a constellation. There are about a dozen beautiful clusters of stars in this constellation. You will need a binocular or telescope to enjoy this wonderland of stars.
Straddled between Arcturus and Vega is Corona Borealis or the Northern Crown. It is home to several binary and two variable stars. Adjacent to the crown is a large region that houses Hercules the Strongman, the fifth biggest constellation in the sky. Right underneath the armpit of Hercules is the northern sky’s brightest globular cluster, M13. It is one of nearly 150 known clusters surrounding our galaxy. These riveting beauties become visible in late spring.
On the line from the Dipper through Regulus and further toward a fairly barren region in the southern horizon is the star Alphard, Arabic for the Solitary One. This orange giant is the brightest star in the constellation Hydra, the many-headed serpent that inhabited the swamps of Lerna, Greece
Return to Ursa Major and locate the second-to-last star in the Dipper’s handle. With a binocular, you will see in the middle the most famous binary star Mizar together with its companion Alcor. If the sky is clear and moonless, you will probably see the constellation Canes Venatici, the Hunting Dogs of Boötes, tucked just under the handle of the Big Dipper. The brightest star in this constellation is Cor Caroli, named after the murdered King Charles I of England. Like Mizar, Cor Caroli is a resplendent binary star.
The depth and splendor of the night sky is simply breathtaking. Embellished with thousands of stars, each appearing as a bright pinpoint of light, star gazing is one of the truly remarkable experiences of life. The great17th century astronomer Kepler remarked: “The treasures hidden in the heavens are so rich that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment.”
The writer is a Professor in the Department of Physics & Engineering Physics, Fordham University, New York