Mike Lynch’s Skywatch: Last call to see the ‘Little Crown’ constellation in 2020

27September 2020

(Courtesy of Mike Lynch)

I’m certainly a lover of large and classic constellations like Orion the Hunter and Ursa Major the Great Bear, but I have a soft spot in my stargazing heart for smaller and fainter constellations. You have to dig for them a bit visually, but I think that’s part of the fun.

A good example is the constellation Corona Borealis, the Little Crown. It’s small and dim, and has one moderately bright star. It’s been available in the evening sky since spring, but this is the last call to see the little crown in the evening for 2020. By late next month the Earth, in its orbit around the sun, will turn away from that part of space. Corona Borealis will already be below the western horizon after evening twilight. Right now it’s still hanging in there in the low western heavens.

Corona Borealis is Latin for “The Northern Crown,” and you can certainly make a case for how the Greeks and Romans saw it as a crown of shining jewels in the sky. I love how the Australians refer to it as a boomerang. You can certainly make it into one. According to Shawnee legend, its stars are the homes of maidens that occasionally come down to Earth and dance about.

As night falls, look for Corona Borealis in the western sky just to the upper left of the constellation Bootes the Hunting Farmer. Bootes looks more like a giant kite than a hunter, with the bright star Arcturus at the tail. Arcturus is easy to find by using the Big Dipper’s handle. Just extend the curve of the handle down to the lower left and you’ll run right into Arcturus. It’s extra easy because Arcturus is the brightest star in that part of the sky in the early evening.

The brightest star in Corona Borealis is Alphecca, pronounced al-feck-ah, a hot bluish-white star about 75 light-years, or roughly 435 trillion miles, away. Even with a powerful telescope, it looks like a single star, but it’s actually made up of two stars revolving around each other every 17 and a half days. As they do, they eclipse each other, causing a tiny variance in the stars’ brightness.

According to Greek mythology, Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown, is the crown of Princess Ariadne. The story goes like this.

Ariadne was the daughter of the evil king of Crete who, once a year, sacrificed seven young men and seven young women to the horrible monster the Minotaur. This beast had the body of a bull and an incredibly ugly human head. As the men and women were being led to the Minotaur one year, Ariadne made eye contact with Theseus, one of the men being led to slaughter and — poof! — it was love at first sight. Ariadne secretly armed Theseus with a sword. Theseus turned the Minotaur into Swiss cheese and, as he ran from his conquest, Ariadne was waiting for him. The couple quickly dashed off in a boat and stopped overnight on the island of Naxos.

No one really knows what happened. Maybe Theseus got cold feet? Perhaps it was Ariadne’s snoring? Whatever the reason, Theseus ditched Ariadne, leaving her sobbing uncontrollably on a beach at Naxos.

Bacchus, the god of wine, ran the island of Naxos. The wine-sipping god fell in love with Ariadne, big-time. Once again Ariadne immediately fell in love, but with Bacchus it was real love. Bacchus and Ariadne were eventually married. He gave her a very extravagant gift. He took off his own crown and threw it into the air so high that it sprouted stars, symbolizing his everlasting love for the princess.

Ariadne has long since left us, but her crown shines on in the northwest sky tonight.

Mars is on the rise: You can’t miss that bright red “star” rising in the eastern sky after 8 p.m. That’s actually Mars. It looks so brilliant because it’s getting so close to Earth. On Oct. 2, the full moon will be less than two degrees to the lower right of Mars for a fabulous conjunction, or what I like to call a “celestial hugging.” On Oct. 13, Mars will be within 40 million miles of Earth. It won’t be this close to us again until 2035. I’ll have much more next week in Skywatch.

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net. Mike is available for private star parties. You can contact him at mikewlynch@comcast.net.


Monday, Sept 28th, 7:30 to 9:30pm, Hillcrest School in Bloomington, MN. For more information call Bloomington Community Education at 952-681-6100 or https://ce.bloomington.k12.mn.us/adult-enrichment-classes

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