Looking Up: Mother’s Day constellation

Peter Becker

Mother’s Day is Sunday! What to get Mom? How about a nifty telescope? It may not replace flowers, but for some it might be just the thing. The writer’s mom (Elsa Garratt Becker) would have liked that. She always had a curiosity about the natural world and skies above - and one time had an unforgettable time visiting an amateur astronomer’s home-built observatory in Maine back in the 1930s - but she never owned her own telescope.

So she was most supportive and encouraging when her 12-year-old son picked up the interest, and wisely tried him out with a small pair of binoculars first, to see if the interest was a passing fad. It wasn’t - and she had many looks through his telescope in the all too few years that followed.

One very familiar constellation visible tonight - and every clear night for that matter in this part of the world, is a mother who was a queen, named Cassiopeia. This group comes to us from the ancient Greeks, about 4,500 years ago.

This is not the usual time of year - spring - to point out Cassiopeia, for it is hugging the Northern horizon in the evening and will be blocked if you have any hills in that direction. So go on top the hill tonight and look north. Its main stars form a “W” in this position and face upwards to the North Star. Keep looking up from there and you come to the Big Dipper, almost right overhead. In the evenings of autumn this is in reverse, with the Big Dipper sitting on the horizon, and Cassiopeia riding high up, turned now like a big “M” (an upside down “W”).

But now it is Queen Cassiopeia’s turn for a deserved rest on the horizon, just in time for Mother’s Day. In this story from the Greeks, her husband is the king of Ethiopia, by the name Cepheus, and his majesty is in the sky to the right and rising, as seen in the springtime evening. If you go out at 3 a.m., you will see how the sky has turned, about a quarter way around the North Star; Cassiopeia is now about halfway up in the northeast, with the North Star to the left and the Big Dipper now dipping down in the northwest (this is also the view you would get on a mid-summer evening). You are seeing both the effects of our spinning Earth through the night, and the revolving Earth about the sun, through the months.

As told in “Field Book of the Skies,” by William T. Olcott, Cassiopeia appears to have been a vain and conceited personage, and lacking in tact, for she is said to have openly boasted she was prettier than the sea nymphs. Naturally incensed, the nymphs informed Neptune (god of the sea), who in turn ravaged the coast of Ethiopia with a sea monster. To punish Cassiopeia, her beautiful daughter Andromeda (also a constellation) should be chained to a rock at the seashore as a prey and tribute to the monster. ... To be continued next week!

Last-quarter moon is on Saturday, May 12.

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Keep looking up!