By David Ward
Here in these northern latitudes, early summer brings long days and night comes late. If you want to do some serious stargazing, you might need to take an afternoon nap so you can actually stay awake until it gets dark.
When it does, take a look up into the southwest sky for a bright orange-looking object. That is the planet Mars, and you might notice that it does not twinkle — which is a big clue that it is a planet, not a star. Earth made a close fly-by of Mars in April, but now we are leaving it behind in the orbital race around the sun. Watch it get dimmer and dimmer as summer progresses.
High overhead is another orange-colored object, but this one is twinkling. It is called Arcturus, and it is the fourth-brightest star in the sky and the brightest star in the constellation Bootes, the herdsman. Look for a large kite-shaped outline of dimmer stars to the north of Arcturus, which vaguely represents the rest of the constellation Bootes.
In mythology, Bootes was the son of Demeter, goddess of agriculture. Ceres was her Roman name, which is where our word cereal comes from. Bootes was supposed to have invented the plow and for that amazing achievement he won the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in ancient Greece: He was placed in the sky by Zeus, king of the gods.
The star Arcturus has its own legends associated with it. Its name resembles our word arctic and it comes from the same Greek root word arktos, meaning bear. Arcturus literally means driver of the bears and its job was to keep the two bears, we usually call them the Big and Little Dippers, in their orbits around the North Star. The ancient Hawaiians called Arcturus the “Star of Gladness.” Why, I do not know.
Many of us in the Methow Valley came here to do things a bit differently from our big city counterparts, maybe even go against the grain a little. If you are one of those people, then Arcturus is your star. Its motion through the cosmos is radically different from all the other stars.
Arcturus is rapidly cutting at a right angle across the galactic plane, that giant merry-go-round of billions of stars, revolving around the center of the galaxy. Because of its unusual motion, it will only be visible from Earth for a few hundred thousand years or so. There is even evidence to suggest that Arcturus was born in another galaxy, which fell into our galaxy billions of years ago.
There are lots of awesome planets up there now. Here is how to find them using the moon. In early June, Jupiter will be to the right of the crescent moon low in the west just after dark. On June 7, Mars will be above and to the right of a half-lit moon. On June 9, Saturn will to the left of a gibbous moon and on the next night to the right of the moon. Early in the morning of June 24, look for a very close pairing of a thin crescent moon and Venus low in the east.
The shortest night of the year occurs on June 21, when the sun reaches its most northerly point in the sky. We call this event the summer solstice and it marks the official beginning of summer here in the northern hemisphere.