Cassiopeia … and You
Credit: Elisabeth Catherina Koopmann Hevelius. 1690.
Evenings with winter coming the Big Dipper sinks toward the northern horizon and its “polar opposite” Cassiopeia rides high overhead above the North Star. M or W? The five major stars make a double zigzag and form a wide “M” this time of year – the reason the chart below is inverted. Legend has it that the gods chained a boastful Queen Cassiopeia to her throne, condemning her to hang upside down in it for part of every year. We’ll see her in “W” formation, but low under Polaris, late next spring.
Four of those five major stars have common names associated with the Queen. Alpha Cass is called the breast, beta the hand, gamma the whip, and delta the knee. Epsilon seems to lack a moniker and the reason may be, as near as I can reckon, that epsilon is too far from the knee even to be called the BIG toe.
All year I’ve tried to emphasize what the casual observer could look for without much fancy equipment. In Cassiopeia there are many interesting points, first of all being the mass of thousands of points of light from our Milky Way which runs through the area. Next I’ll mention that the middle star of the main five, gamma, has a retinue of companion stars clustered around, together with a bubble-like nebula.
Other points of interest can be reached if we venture out from the “M.” A short way to the west, about the length of beta’s leg, is star cluster Messier 52. My personal log cites Aunt Claire describing it as very busy.
From epsilon at the other end of “M,” we stretch that leg’s length about double in order to find a triple. Iota Cass [see chart above] is a very colorful triple which could be accessed with binoculars or a very small scope. I’ve observed a bright yellow star with a blue companion, but have not recognized it as triple.
My last highlight can be spotted with your own two eyes. It lies just over the Cassiopeia line into the Perseus domain, but it is well worth going through the border check. You’ll see The Double Cluster as a messy smudge, but binoculars will resolve enough stars to keep you busy looking for many minutes. Are the overall shapes round or oblong? Which cluster is older do you think? The older one would have more reddish stars. A younger cluster would tend to blue. You’ll find some of each in each. Do you see patterns, trails? Have a look at NASA's image.
… and You
Every month I’ve suggested objects to observe, questions to ponder, and topics to research. This month I have just one suggestion. Create a record of some kind. Make sketches or log entries. Link your observations with other events in your life. In checking my log this month I see that many friends and students have peered through my scope on visits that may have been initially for other reasons. I treasure those entries for the memories they jog loose. Keep warm and keeping looking up.