January 2017 Skies
Cold January nights usually find me inside being an armchair astronomer. I find these nights to be great for just exploring using a star atlas or an app on my computer or phone. That’s how I discovered Achernar. Star apps on a phone such as Google Sky or Sky Safari let you point the device in the direction of the object you’re looking at and it gives the name and other information. Well, I just happened to be pointing the phone downward toward the Earth when Achernar jumped out. Unfortunately, it is a southern hemisphere star that we cannot see here in Colorado. It’s a name some sky watchers may be familiar with because it is a bizarre star that spins so fast it is visibly flattened. The star lore surrounding this star is among the most romantic of the heavens. So in honor of Achernar, we will explore meanings of the brightest stars of winter.
Sirius is the brightest star in night sky after our Sun. Usually called the Dog Star because it’s the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major, the dog. The name actually comes from the ancient Greek for glowing or scorcher. Other societies associated the star with canine. The Pawnee of Nebraska knew it as the “Wolf Star,” or the “Coyote Star.” The Inuit of Alaska called it “Moon Dog.” While the Chinese saw Sirius associated with a large bow and arrow glittering across the southern sky.
Capella, the 6th brightest star in Auriga, is the Charioteer’s left shoulder. The name comes from Latin for little female goat. A goat is usually shown draping Auriga’s shoulder.
Rigel, the brightest star in the constellation Orion and the seventh brightest in the sky, translates from Arabic as the ‘foot of the great one.’
Procyon, the brightest star of the small constellation Canis Minor, the Little Dog, is the eighth brightest in the night sky. In ancient Greek the name means “before the dog.” The star does rise before Canis Major. My favorite story arises from Babylonian mythology where Procyon is known as Nangar, the carpenter who was involved in building and organizing the celestial sky.
Betelguese, or beetle-juice, is one of the biggest stars in our night sky. Designated the second brightest star in Orion and the tenth brightest star in the sky, Betelgeuse is a red supergiant. If plopped into our solar system, this monster star would fill the space out to the asteroid belt. As majestic as the star is, the name is much less so. In Arabic, Betelgeuse means the ‘armpit of the central one.’ Chinese and Japanese astronomers were more poetic. In Chinese, it was known as ‘the fourth star of the constellation of three stars.’ And in Japan, the star known as Heike-boshi squared off with white Rigel in a legendary war where they were only separated by the three stars of the belt.
Aldebaran, was known by the Arabs as the ‘follower.’ Presumably, because the 14th brightest star in the sky closely followed the Seven Sisters or the Pleiades (which is known in Japan as Subaru; yes the car company named themselves after the open star cluster) into the sky. Chinese astronomers knew it as the ‘Fifth Star of the Net.’
Pollux and Castor, 17th and 25th brightest stars in the constellation Gemini are the heavenly twin stars.
And no tour of the winter sky would be complete without Ursa Major, the Great Bear. Dubhe, the second brightest star in Ursa Major and the 34th brightest in the sky is known as ‘The Bear.’ Dubhe is easy to find as it is one of pointer stars to North Star; the one closest to Polaris. At the other end of the constellation is Alkaid or the ‘end of the tail.’
And how does Achernar measure up? Achenar is the ninth brightest star in the night sky and the brightest star in the constellation Eridanus, or the Great River, which springs near the feet of great Orion. And as it sits at the farthest end of the constellation, the Arabic astronomers decided to call it ‘the end of the river.’