The Best Constellation of Autumn? It's a Horse, of Course!
One of the classic constellations of autumn is Pegasus, the flying horse soaring above the southeastern horizon in the evening sky. It's by far the largest celestial horse we see in our Butler sky.
The traditional interpretation of Pegasus is a horse flying upside down with puny little wings. If you can see it that way, more power to you. Over the years though, I've strayed from that view of Pegasus, and I’d like to share it with you.
My view of Pegasus also involves borrowing part of the adjacent constellation Andromeda the Princess.
The way I see Pegasus is a right-side-up majestic flying horse with a huge wingspan, rescuing the lovely Princess Andromeda from a gigantic, ravenous sea monster. If I could personally show you Pegasus, I guarantee you'd be convinced. My view of Pegasus matches the flying red horse you see portrayed at Mobil service stations. I realize this talk of changing the interpretation of Pegasus and Andromeda is blasphemy to purists, but please allow me to exercise some celestial creative license. Stargazing is meant to be enjoyed!
As soon as it's dark enough, look directly above the eastern horizon for a giant diamond of four reasonably bright stars that outline the torso of Pegasus, otherwise known as the "Square of Pegasus." They're easy to spot since they are the brightest stars in that area of the sky. The star at the top of the diamond is Scheat, pronounced she-at. Don't say the name of that star too fast around the kids!
Scheat is the base of the flying horse's neck. Look above Scheat for two other stars that outline the rest of the neck and another fairly faint star to the lower right of the neck that marks the flying horse’s nose.
This horse has a multi-jointed front leg that extends upward in a curved line. To see it, start at Markab, on the right-hand corner of the square of Pegasus. From there, look for a curved line of slightly fainter stars that extends up to the upper right of Markab.
I love the name of the star on the left corner of the square of Pegasus. It's called Alpheratz, pronounced al-fee-rats. You can't help but see a curved line of three bright stars extending to the left of Alpheratz. I see that as the mighty wings of Pegasus.
If you look above that bright line of stars, you'll see another curved line of fainter stars. That outlines Andromeda the Princess, hitching a ride on the horse's rear end. In the traditional view of the upside-down flying Pegasus, both curved lines of stars attached to Alpheratz make up the constellation Andromeda the Princess.
No matter how you see the constellations Pegasus and Andromeda, the saga of how the lovely princess found herself tied to a flying horse's rear end is part of the great Greek mythological story involving Perseus, Cassiopeia, Pegasus and Princess Andromeda.
Perseus was the son of Zeus, king of the gods. Flying back from a mission, he came across a distressing scene. The giant ugly sea monster Cetus was closing in on a beach where Princess Andromeda was chained to a rock by her parents, Cassiopeia and Cepheus, the king and queen of ancient Ethiopia. They were forced to offer their daughter as a sacrifice to Cetus to keep their entire kingdom from being ravaged by the sea monster.
Perseus had to save this damsel in distress, but he had to be smart about it.
The mission Perseus had just completed was to cut off the head of Medusa, a terrible monster so ugly that anyone who looked at it was turned to stone. Entire communities were being stoned, and it had to be stopped. Using the borrowed magic shield of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, Perseus whacked off the head of the monster without becoming stoned himself.
The quick-thinking Perseus whipped out the head of Medusa and waved it at Cetus just before the monster had Princess Andromeda for lunch. That's all it took! Cetus sank into the depths, never to be seen again.
By the way, Cetus is also a constellation not far away from Pegasus, but very faint.
But that's not all. Blood from the severed head of Medusa hit the ocean waves, magically producing Pegasus, a beautiful white-winged horse that instinctively flew down to the boulder where Andromeda was, chewed off the chains, and then flew the Princess up to Perseus where it was love at first sight.
Perseus and Andromeda were soon married in an elaborate royal wedding. Was it happily ever after for the new couple? Not quite. A few years after the wedding, Perseus found himself at the wrong end of a sword in a drunken brawl.
Astronomically, one of the best celestial gems in the night sky is the Andromeda Galaxy, otherwise known as Messier object 31.
Scan that area of the heavens just above the Princess with your binoculars or a small telescope and look for a ghostly fuzzy patch. If you're out in the countryside and have really dark skies, you can see it with your naked eye.
The Andromeda Galaxy, the Milky Way Galaxy's next-door neighbor, is over two million light-years away, with just one light-year weighing in at almost six trillion miles. It’s also much larger than the Milky Way. That little fuzzy patch is easily home to possibly a trillion stars and many, many more planets.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of "Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations," published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net. Contact him at email@example.com.