Take a look the next clear autumn evening, for the Royal Couple riding high. They are not Queen Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. They are not Prince William and his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton. They are not even King Letsie III of Lesotho and his wife, Queen 'Masenate Mohato Seeiso. It certainly isn’t the last monarchs mentioned. Lesotho is a landlocked country within South Africa, where the Southern Cross reigns in the sky. The Royal Couple to which we refer are the monarchs of the celestial north. Their majesty shines with the brilliance of dozens of stars, forming well-recognized patterns. They line a great cosmic river, as it is sometimes called, the Milky Way Band, rising past the North Star (Polaris) and the Dippers. We speak of King Cepheus and his charming wife Queen Cassiopeia. Looking down upon the northern hemisphere of a small planet third from the Sun, the stars of course know nothing of the honor bestowed upon them by very imaginative subjects looking up from the Earthly abode, connecting the stars into constellations with abandon. Cassiopeia outlines the famous “W” in the sky, which at other times resembles and “M”. Her Majesty’s five principal stars form these letters as she endlessly circles the North Star, following the King. Cepheus is also marked by five principal stars, which connect together like a house with a peaked roof. As the sky forever rotates east to west, the stars of the northern sky go around counter-clockwise, with the North Star barely moving at all, near center. Cepheus is in the lead. As seen on September evenings, Cepheus is up high, with the “peak of the house” pointing downward. The “peak’ star roughly points toward the North Star. Cassiopeia is at right, its “W” outline tipped on its side. If you go outside (or look from a north-facing window) after midnight, you will see how the sky has moved around. At about 2 a.m. at this time of year, Cassiopeia will now be oriented like an “M” facing downward, high in the sky and Cepheus down to the left, the “house” on its side. Cepheus has some remarkable stars enjoyed by backyard observers. One is Delta Cephei, a variable star that changes its light output between magnitude 3.5 to 4.4 every five days and nine hours. Mu Cephei appears as a beautiful red star in binoculars. In Greek mythology, Cepheus was the king of Aethiopia. He and Cassiopeia were parents of Andromeda. Their daughter’s constellation is close by Cassiopeia, and contains the famous galaxy of the same name. Andromeda’s suitor, Perseus, is honored with a constellation in the same area of the sky. Cassiopeia’s five main stars have been rendered as an elk antler by the Lapps, and part of a tortoise constellation by the natives of the Marshall Islands. In 1572, a brilliant supernova appeared in Cassiopeia, visible in daylight at its peak. If you were to view Cassiopeia from the star Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to the Sun and visible in the deep south, Cassiopeia would have an added, bright star. What is its name? The Sun! First Quarter Moon is on Sept. 22, which is also the Autumnal Equinox. Send your notes to email@example.com; please say where you read this column. Keep looking up!
Royalty rides high in the sky