While you may have plans afoot to adorn a certain coniferous sapling of verdant hue with all things bright, shiny, and sparkling in the next few weeks, let’s for a moment indulge in considering what will be the final display of celestial ‘fairy lights’ we’ll connect up in space for the year 2013.
Since the north pole may be much in the consciousness of our youngest stargazers this month, let’s all start by taking a look once again at the concentric zone of stars that lie directly above it in space, the zone inhabited by the circumpolar constellations. We’ll now add another pattern to this elite always-visible (from northern latitudes) group of star patterns, Camelopardalis the giraffe.
In stellar terms the spotted and long-necked “kamelos”-“pardalis” (Greek) ‘camel-leopard’ is very unobtrusive, with its brightest ‘beta’ star only reaching an apparent magnitude of 4. Introduced in 1613 by Petrus Plancius, the Dutch astronomer, it was sometimes referred to as Camelopardus. However as a young constellation identified as late as the 17th Century, it is an exception to the others, innocent of any myth.
Would anyone turn down a good firework show in December? Well one of the best atmospheric ‘firework’ displays comes smack in the middle of this month and not only is it famous for releasing up to as many as 50-80 trailblazers an hour at its climax, but may promise one or two really bright meteors thrown in as well for good measure! For those really keen to see a sneak preview, grab a scarf and step out into the great outdoors on the evening of 6th December. While the rate of nocturnal meteors should increase all being well over the seven consecutive days, the 6th of December might let you glimpse one Geminid every hour. The Geminids meteor shower should then emerge in all its glory in the east in the constellation Gemini’s patch of sky on the evening of the 13th and early morning of the 14th of December, with the last shooting stars visible up until the 18th December and approximately one meteor per hour on display at that stage.
Aries was a magical ram belonging to Zeus, king of the gods which could think, talk, and fly. Instead of wool the ram’s fleece was made of something precious, apparently in abundance where Zeus was concerned… yes, you guessed it, gold. Later while the ram itself was sacrificed by Phrixus, its golden fleece was put under the guard of the never-sleeping-dragon Draco, ultimately becoming the object at the centre of the famous quest of Jason and the Argonauts. With a bright Moon in close proximity to contend with mid-month, an easier time for us to hunt for the star pattern of the ram will be at 10pm in the southwest from the 22nd onwards.
Sometimes out of something ugly, beauty can be born. A fine example of this is no less than among our heavenly star patterns. According to myth, when the hero Perseus beheaded the malevolent and hideous Medusa with a round-house sweep of his sword, its blood splashed into the ocean. Somewhat bizarrely from the pinkish waters emerged a majestic creature with wings, the Pegasus. The notion of a flying horse was popular in ancient times, is still popular to this day and as such can be seen as an icon in modern media. As we are already familiar with the Great Square as a useful stellar ‘skymark’ we can now see that the square forms the stomach of Perseus’ fabulous steed.
A small ‘head-only’ constellation peering round just behind Pegasus is that of a small horse. Sometimes known as Equus Primus (“the first horse”), because of its lead on Pegasus in emerging above the horizon, it could easily be mistaken in certain constellation illustrations for being part of one double-headed flying stallion, along with Pegasus. With its Latin name Equuleus meaning ‘little horse’, this foal dates back to Hipparchus, and as the smallest constellation but one, remains a distinct member of the 88 constellations in its own right. While often associated with “swiftness”, more than one myth suggests Equuleus was the unlucky victim of Poseidon’s trident while the enraged sea god battled Athena.
We all love a good game, don’t we? Well as Christmas is nearly upon us it seems only appropriate I leave you, dear reader with a puzzle to amuse you while also testing just a little that accumulated celestial knowledge from our night sky tour over the past quarter! (I know, it’s nothing really, don’t mention it…)
So as you look above to observe the great sights of the night sky in December, happy hunting and enjoy your interstellar voyage!
(article by Nick Parke, Education Support Officer)