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Checking Out Some of the Old Reliable Stars in Our Skies

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Clear SkiesBy Scott Levine

With the world in turmoil and as unpredictable as it’s been, it often feels impossible to find anything that gives us even the slightest sense of calm or control. It’s hard to keep moving forward.

As sure as these things are, birds are coming back, streets and lawns have turned to mud, buds are on the branches and the air has warmed just a bit. The sights and sounds of spring as we know it are all around.

The milestones of spring are in the night sky, too. As we close out March, let’s grab someone we love and track down our old friend, the Big Dipper. In early spring’s mid-evenings, these stars, the seven most well-known – and brightest – in Ursa Major (the great bear), are in a part of the northeast sky where the idea of stars coming and going with the seasons doesn’t quite work.

Rather than rising and setting the way Orion’s or Leo’s stars do, the Dipper and a few other groups are constant and easy to find whenever we look for them. They seem to orbit Polaris, the north star, night after night, year after year. If we could turn off the sun, which I don’t recommend, we’d see them there all the time, steady and reassuring, our entire lives, even during the day.

The phases of the moon for April.

In early spring, the Dipper hangs from the night, almost like the universe’s biggest question mark, asking us something that’s far too big to imagine. While we look, let’s draw a line through the two stars at the top of the “question mark,” and then to our left, out past its open side. Polaris is the next medium-bright star we come to.

In our skies, it’s a soft, muted yellow and surprisingly dim. It’s only about the 50th brightest star in the night sky, but its importance to navigation and society shines much brighter. In truth, it’s a remarkable system of three stars, but across the 400-odd light-years between us, it looks like just one dot in the night.

Now, back to the Dipper. This time, let’s follow the arc of its handle away from the bowl. As our gaze jumps off the handle’s end, we come to the night’s fourth brightest star: Arcturus. This star is seasonal and comes back in February. While it glides across the night, it looks like it guides the bear in its dance around Polaris.

Arcturus is an old red giant star about 37 light-years away that’s similar to the type of star that our sun will become billions of years from now, after it uses up all of its hydrogen fuel. In a way, watching Arcturus these nights, until it drops below the northwest horizon on an early September evening, is like looking into our own future.

Notice, I didn’t say we can control any of this, but at times like these, when the world feels like it’s upside down, we can look up and expect things to be where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be there. There’s definitely something to that. I hope you’ll look this month.

Scott Levine (astroscott@yahoo.com) is an astronomy writer and speaker from Croton-on-Hudson. He is also a member of the Westchester Amateur Astronomers, who are dedicated to astronomy outreach in our area. For information about the club including membership, newsletters, upcoming meetings and lectures at Pace University and star parties at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, visit westchesterastronomers.org.


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