The High Queen of Late Night

One of the first star patterns I recognized as a young lad was the “W” (or “M,” from another perspective) opposite Ursa Major (The Big Dipper) from the north star’s constellation, Ursa Minor. These days, a northern hemisphere viewer will see this star formation directly overhead in the early evening.

Many of us northern hemisphere stargazers have learned to locate the direction north at night by following the two stars at the end of the Big Dipper and tracing them to Polaris. If one permits one’s gaze to continue about the same distance (and if the skies are not horribly washed out by city lights), one will behold a queen among constellations, Cassiopeia.

cassiopeia_iauIn this International Astronomical Union/Sky & telescope chart, you can see the “W” of the five brightest stars. Also check members of the royal family: the king to the upper right in this view, daughter Andromeda to the south, next to the heroic son-in-law Perseus. If you recall one of the film versions of “Clash of the Titans,” you’ll get something of the gist of this family’s dysfunctional history and conflict with the gods of ancient Greece/Rome.

mary-magdaleneI’ve read of post-Reformation attempts to replace the pagan mythology of the heavens with Judeo-Christian associations. Various efforts to associate the northern “M” with Mary Magdalene (among others) came to nought. The African royal stayed put in astronomers’ minds and books.

A few bits of trivia:

If a human travelers went to Alpha Centauri and looked back toward Earth, they would see our sun crowning Queen Cass, easily the brightest star in the area.

The nearest visible star in the constellation isn’t even part of the “W.” Eta Cassiopeia (look for the Greek letter η near the middle of the formation. How near is near? Only about 120 trillion miles.

Nice picture, eh:

heart_and_soul_nebulaeMeet the Heart Nebula and the Soul Nebula, in infrared light. Image credit. These two are much farther away than Eta Cass, about 45 quadrillion miles.

Once and future supernovae hang with the queen. Astronomers didn’t notice one supergiant star blow about 300 years ago–dust between there and here got in the way. How do we know? Cass A is the brightest (some would say loudest) radio source outside the solar system. Jodie Foster’s character in Contact mentions it. Rho Cassiopeia is a rarity–only twelve yellow supergiants are known among the Milky Way’s hundred billion stars. It will go supernova eventually–if it hasn’t already done so and the light from the explosion has yet to reach Earth.

Lots going on around that humble but high “W” in the northern skies. Keep your eyes open around there, and you might see something amazing someday.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to The High Queen of Late Night

  1. Liam says:

    Ursa Major (Big Dipper) is circumpolar at latitudes north of 41N, and Cassiopeia is circumpolar even at lower latitudes. Cassiopeia gets tossed from her throne in W formation, as it were…

    Here’s a nifty GIF showing the relationship of the two easily recognized circumpolar constellations and Polaris:

    The only constellation that may rival these for ordinary folk would be Orion (specifically Orion’s Belt), the most easily recognized seasonal (non-circumpolar) constellation along with Sirius of Orion’s dog, Canis Major. I love watching the seasonal progression of Orion from mid-summer to mid-spring (I rise around 4AM on workdays to go swimming at 5AM at my Y).The return of Sirius to the predawn sky in midsummer was a sign of the pending Nile floods (fed by the summer Indian Ocean monsoon rains 3000-4000 miles away over the mountains in the Horn of Africa)

    • Liam says:

      a sign to ancient Egyptians, that is.

      Ever since the Nile was dammed at Aswan 50 years ago, that ancient natural connection was lost.

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