By David Ward
One of the most memorable stories from the ancient Greeks is written in the stars of the autumn sky. Look high up into the northeast early in the evening for a “W” of five fairly bright stars. A dimmer sixth one turns the W into a chair. That is Cassiopeia the queen, one of the most familiar and easily recognized constellations in the sky.
Cassiopeia was boastful and vain, qualities that the gods and goddesses of the time did not appreciate. She claimed that she and her daughter Andromeda were more beautiful than the Nereids, the gorgeous divine nymphs of the sea. They accompanied Poseidon, the god of the ocean, on his voyages around the Aegean Sea and if you remember the story of the Trojan War and the famous Greek warrior Achilles, his mother was one of those nymphs. Now there were 50 of them, and it is not a great idea to get 50 goddesses ticked off at you.
Of course, the Nereids could not bear to have their beauty diminished by a mere mortal, even if she was a queen, so they complained to Poseidon himself. The god of the sea sent a horrible sea monster from the depths of the ocean to ravage the kingdom of Cassiopeia.
An oracle advised that the beautiful daughter Andromeda had to be sacrificed to appease the angry goddesses. She was chained to a rock at the edge of the sea, and the monster, Cetus, was licking his lips waiting for the tide to come in, so he could devour the beautiful maiden.
Saved by Perseus
Just in the nick of time, the Greek hero Perseus just happened to come flying by on winged sandals, given to him by the god Mercury, and saved the day. This old story must have really impressed the Greeks, because most of its characters are immortalized as constellations in the sky and it all started with Queen Cassiopeia.
You can use the constellation Cassiopeia to find the Andromeda Galaxy, one of the most amazing deep sky objects we can see. Imagine that the western most leg of the W is a pointer and follow it to the southeast about the length of the entire W to find an oblong smudge of dim light. Binoculars may help you spot it. If you do manage to see it, congratulations, that is the biggest and most distant object visible to the naked eye. The light from that dim glow took two-and-a-half million years to get here.
Notice that a faint band of light stretches across the sky right through Cassiopeia. That is the Milky Way Galaxy, our home in the vast cosmos. Scan the sky along that glowing band with binoculars and thousands of stars will pop into view.
Planets and meteors
Over in the west, the three bright stars of the Summer Triangle are still visible, but they will not be with us much longer this year. The highest of the three is Deneb, the brightest star in the constellation Cygnus, the swan. Cygnus represented about every swan the ancient Greeks could think of, but in one old story it was the pet of Queen Cassiopeia.
The only planet visible in early evening is Mars, low in the southwest just after it gets dark. If you are up late, that very bright object rising over the hills in the east is Jupiter. As we slide into winter the largest of the planets will rise earlier and earlier and will outshine even the brightest stars of winter.
The Leonid meteor shower may light up our skies this month. Some years it puts on an amazing show. This time around the shower is not predicted to be real spectacular, but you never know. Those astronomical geeks who try to figure out stuff like how many meteors we will see could be wrong. The nights to look for the Leonids are Nov. 17 and 18, and your best shot at it will be late at night just before dawn.
One more thing about Cassiopeia: Notice how she circles the North Star each night, and if you can visualize her chair, she hangs upside down for part of every evening, a very undignified pose for royalty. Poseidon tied her to her chair in the heavens like that on purpose, the ultimate insult to a boastful queen.