Sunday, August 14, 2005

The Strolling Astronomer

The Strolling Astronomer
by Dave Adalian

During summer I take my walks after the Sun is down, when my family's gone to bed and the heat of the day has faded. I stroll among the stars, hoping for the thrill of a meteor and making sure those points of light are still fixed to their places.

My front door faces east, and as August fades the Great Square of Pegasus, part of the winged horse’s constellation, hovers above my neighbor’s rooftop. Later the Square will rise high into the night sky, trailing Pisces the Fish behind, but early on it sits on its eastern point, a huge diamond-shape of stars.

Right of Pegasus’ Square are the dim, indistinct zodiacal constellations of Aquarius the Water Bearer and Capricornus the Sea Goat. This seemingly empty ocean of sky has a single bright star, lonely Fomalhaut in Pisces Austrinus, the southern fish, hanging over the southeast horizon, bobbing above the houses as I lope along.

Beyond this barren portion of the night is Sagittarius the Archer with his famous Teapot asterism and to his right the long, barbed hook of Scorpius the Scorpion, home of the red supergiant star Antares. Despite the city lights, I can still sometimes see the Milky Way rising like steam from the Teapot’s spout to trail beside huge Ophiuchus, the snake-handler, whose healing power defied death itself until Zeus immortalized him in the sky.

Walking west, I see the orange star Arcturus shimmering in the heavy air marking Bo├Âtes the Plowman, and above it is a half-circle of stars, Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown. Higher still is brave Hercules, club at the ready.

As I march along, I catch glimpses of the Big Dipper in Ursa Major among the trees and housetops northwest, and due north is always faithful Polaris, the North Star, in the Little Dipper in Ursa Minor. When I finally turn back toward home again there is the W-shape of Cassiopeia the Queen standing on edge in the northeast, and below her the hero Perseus defending Andromeda, the Chained Lady, who lends her brightest star to Pegasus as the northernmost corner of his Square.

I arrive back at my doorstep and crane my neck to look straight overhead for the Summer Triangle: Altair in Aquila the Eagle, white Vega in Lyra the Lyre and Deneb marking the tail of Cygnus the Swan. Then I quietly steal inside, careful not to awake those who lie sleeping.

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This column appeared originally in the Visalia (Calif.) Times-Delta on Aug. 25, 2005.

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