May’s morning zoo

SkyCaramba astronomy blog for the week ending May 21, 2011

The dance at dawn continues during the next week with Venus a little left of Mercury, Jupiter above them, and Mars below. By the weekend of the 21st, Jupiter will appear high above Venus and Mercury. Venus and Mercury will have swooped down to meet Mars. If you’re up while it’s still fairly dark, you might as well take a look around. There’s a zoo up there!

A little above our four planet meeting is an arrangement of four stars called the Great Square. They form the body of Pegasus, the winged horse of ancient (and not so ancient) legends.

The image of a winged horse has captured imaginations for thousands of years. Such is found on objects from ancient Greek archeological sites, in art from the Middle Ages, and in corporate logos and advertising campaigns today. Storytellers of long ago were right in ways they couldn’t have imagined when they said Pegasus is immortal.

In the Pegasus legend, the winged horse emerged after a warrior killed Medusa. Drops of Medusa’s blood mixed with sea foam to become the winged horse. Wherever Pegasus clopped a foot to the ground, water burst forth. The horse is said to have created the fountain of Hippocrene on Mt. Helicon that way. The Muses revered the fountain as giving inspiration to any poet who drank from it.

There’s another horse nearby, and you’ll have to be up before dawn’s light to see it. It’s called Equuleus. One of the legends says it’s Pegasus’s brother. Not much has been written about Equuleus over the millennia because it’s such a dim and small constellation.

It’s not hard to look at Delphinus and see the curved shape of a dolphin. And Aquila looks a lot like an eagle with its wings spread. If you’ve ever seen a swan in flight, Cygnus appears aptly named. It’s still good as the Northern Cross.

On one side of the swan is Vulpecula, the wolf. It’s a modern constellation, created in the 1600s. It has the distinction of being home to the first discovered pulsar. On the other side of the swan is Lacerta, the lizard, also from the 1600s. You didn’t know there were any reptiles up there, did you?

Getting back to where we started, the four planets we’ve been watching this month are in Pisces. That’s the Latin plural for fish. There are two: the north fish and the south fish. (Don’t confuse the south fish of Pisces with the constellation Southern Fish or Piscis Austrinus.) Many ancient cultures associated these stars with fish, although some saw just one fish in them. In another month, you’ll get a better view of Pisces before dawn.

While you’re watching the animals above, watch out for the animals below. At these early hours, it’s a good idea to use insect repellant. And in some places, the real world counterparts to the animals in the sky could be hunting for a meal. Be sure to live to stargaze another night.