For thousands of years, humans have looked at the stars. The stars helped them try to understand their purpose and the role they play in our lives.
To help memorize the different stars, many different cultures created connect-the-dot figure patterns. Today we recognize 88 official patterns or “constellations” of stars.
In last month’s blog, we talked about Orion the Hunter, as well as other prominent constellations seen in the winter.
This month’s post will focus on three others, most notably Gemini the Twins.
Gemini the twins
High above is the constellation of Gemini the Twins. Unlike many constellations, Gemini really looks like what it’s supposed to be: twin people.
The constellation is a pair of stick figures “Castor” and “Pollux”. Each figure is named after the brightest star on its head. To remember which is which, let’s remember that the star Castor is closer to Polaris, the Pole Star, than its brother Pollux.
The star Pollux was one of the first to be discovered to host an extrasolar planet (2006), a planet beyond our solar system. Now, thanks to various methods, including the orbit of the Kepler spacecraft, we know of thousands of extrasolar planets.
Pollux’s sister star, Castor, is a notable star. Astronomers have discovered that almost half of all stars have companions. While most of these companion groups appear as double stars (two stars orbiting each other), Castor is actually made up of three pairs of double stars (six stars in total). Unfortunately, most of the six stars are too close together for us to observe them without a special telescope.
Castor’s body extends down to his giant foot. Looking over its tip with binoculars, you can find an open cluster; a loose group of stars that have formed together from a giant gas cloud. While the cloud may have dissipated, the remaining stars can still be seen.
Charioteer the charioteer
To the right of Gemini the Twins is the constellation Auriga, the Charioteer. Unlike his neighbor, seeing a charioteer here requires an enormous amount of creative imagination. However, if you zoom in a little, you will see a house with a base, two walls, and a three-pointed roof.
Auriga’s brightest star is Capella. This star is one of the brightest in the winter sky, although it can also be seen rising around midnight during the summer.
Many times in the summer, a camper who stays awake past midnight will notice a bright, twinkling object rising in the east. That star is Capella.
Within Auriga, towards its left (east) side are three more open star clusters, each similar to the one found in Gemini.
Canis Minor, the lesser dog
Completing our three February constellations is Canis Minor, the Lesser Dog. The brightest star in this small constellation is Procyon, which means “before the dog” because it rises before the bright dog star, Sirius.
For more information on February astronomy, visit our Eyes on the Skies post.