Sometime this spring be sure to say hello to the Guardian of the Bear. Look to the east for a bright orange-colored star. To make sure you have got the right one, look higher in the northeast for the Big Dipper. Then follow the curve of its handle across the sky and it will lead to Arcturus, the Guardian of the Bear.
This star was thought to keep the two bears, which we know as the Big and Little Dippers, in their orbits around the North Star. The bears were once people and were placed in the sky as punishment. The ancient Greeks believed if a constellation did not set in the ocean at some point in their journey across the sky they did not get any rest. The two dippers are too close to the Pole Star to go below the horizon.
Notice that the name Arcturus sounds a lot like our word Arctic. They both come from the Greek root word arktos, meaning bear. Arctic literally means realm of the bears.
Some astronomers think that Arcturus is a visitor from far, far away. It may have been born in another galaxy outside our own Milky Way galaxy and fell into it billions of years ago. How does a galaxy fall into another one? It is all about gravity, the same force that allows you to collapse into your easy chair after a hard day of working in the yard. It is called galactic cannibalization, and it actually happens out there in the universe.
All of this occurred billions of years ago, but the cool thing is that Arcturus is taking a whole different path around the Milky Way than all the other stars we see. It just happens to be flying by us right now when life on this planet evolved enough to be able to look up and see it and realize what it is.
Arcturus is the brightest star in the constellation Bootes, the Herdsman. Look for a large kite-shaped grouping of stars above Arcturus. What did he do to deserve being placed in the sky? The guy invented the plow. How hard could that be? A plow is not all that complicated. What about the guy that invented the smart phone? Why is he not up there?
Take a look around
While you are out there looking around, I might as well show you a few other things. Look to the right of Arcturus to a dimmer star, Spica. To make sure you have it, look a little more to the right for a small quadrangle of dimmer stars. Line up the top row and point to the left and it will lead you to Spica. The quadrangle, i.e. Corvus, the Crow, is one of the smallest constellations up there. There is a whole story about that little crow, but I will not go into it now.
Spica, which means grain of wheat, is the brightest star in the constellation Virgo. Her name was Demeter, and she was the mother of Bootes. The Romans called her Ceres, and we get our word cereal from her.
The really bright object high in the west just after it gets dark is Venus. She is in all her glory now. If you cannot find her in the sky, give up on stargazing, go back inside and watch TV! This summer she will take a dive into the sunset glow only to re-emerge in the east just before sunrise. The ancient Greeks thought the morning Venus and the evening Venus were two separate celestial objects. They called the morning sighting Phosphorus and the evening one Hesperus. No matter what you want to call her she is dazzling up there.
So why should you say hello to Arcturus right now? Since that star is taking a different path through the cosmos than all the other stars, Arcturus will be gone from our sight in about 100,000 years or so. Wave while you still can.