The best constellation of autumn? It’s a horse, of course
One of the classic constellations of autumn is Pegasus, the flying horse soaring above the southeastern horizon in the evening sky. It’s by far the largest celestial horse we see in the southwestern Minnesota skies. The traditional interpretation of Pegasus is a horse flying upside down with puny little wings. If you can see it that way, more power to you.
Over the years I’ve strayed from that view of Pegasus, and I’m not the only one. There are many that see Pegasus as I do, a majestic horse with a huge wingspan rescuing the lovely Princess Andromeda from a huge ravenous sea monster. If I could personally take you and show you Pegasus I guarantee you’d be convinced. In fact, the right side up version of Pegasus looks just like the flying red horse you see on Mobile gas station signs.
As soon as it’s dark enough, look directly above the eastern horizon for a giant diamond of four fairly bright stars that outline the torso of Pegasus, otherwise known as the “Square of Pegasus.” They’re easy to spot since they are the brightest stars in that area of the sky. The star at the top of the diamond is the star Scheat, pronounced she-at. Don’t say the name of that star too fast around the kids! Scheat is the base of the flying horse’s neck. Look above Scheat for two other stars that outline the rest of the neck, and another fairly faint star to the lower right of the neck that marks the flying horsey’s nose.
The horse has a multi-jointed front leg that extends upward in a curved line. To see it, start at Markab, on the right hand corner of the square of Pegasus. From there, look for a curved line of slightly fainter stars that extend up to the upper right of Markeb.
I love the name of the star on the left corner of the square of Pegasus. It’s called Alpheratz, pronounced Al-fee-rats. You can’t help but see a curved line of three bright stars extending to the lower left of Alpheratz. You are looking at the mighty wings of Pegasus. If you look above that bright line of stars you’ll see another curved line of fainter stars. That outlines Andromeda the Princess, who is hitched on to the rear end of the horse. In the traditional view of the upside flying Pegasus, both of the curved lines of stars attached to Alpheratz make up the constellation Andromeda the Princess.
No matter how you see the constellations Pegasus and Andromeda, the saga of how the lovely princess found herself tied to a flying horse’s rear end is part of the great Greek mythological story involving Perseus, Cassiopeia, Pegasus, and the lovely Princess Andromeda.
Perseus, son of Zeus, king of the gods, was flying back from a mission when he flew over a distressing scene. The giant ugly sea monster Cetus was closing in on a beach where Princess Andromeda was chained to a rock by her own parents, Cassiopeia and Cepheus, the king and queen of ancient Ethiopia. They were forced to offer their daughter as a sacrifice to Cetus to keep their entire kingdom from being ravaged by the sea monster. Perseus had to save this damsel in distress, but he had to be smart about it.
Perseus’ mission was to cut off the head of Medusa, a terrible monster that was so ugly anyone who looked at it was turned to stone. Entire communities were being stoned! It had to be stopped. Using the borrowed magic shield of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, Perseus whacked off the head of the monster without becoming stoned himself.
The quick thinking Perseus whipped out the head of Medusa and waved it at Cetus just at as the monster was about to make lunch out of Princess Andromeda. That’s all it took! Cetus sank into the depths, never to be seen again!
But that’s not all. Blood from the severed head of Medusa hit the ocean waves and magically produced Pegasus, a beautiful white winged horse that instinctively flew down to the boulder where Andromeda was, chewed off the chains and then flew the Princess up to Perseus, where it was love at first sight. Perseus and Andromeda were soon married in an elaborate royal wedding. Was it happily ever after for the new couple? Not quite. A few years after the wedding, Perseus found himself at the wrong end of a sword in a drunken brawl. There’s a little more to that story, but I gave you the Reader’s Digest version.
Astronomically, one of the best celestial gems in the traditional constellation Andromeda is the Andromeda Galaxy, otherwise known as Messier object 31. Scan that area of the heavens just above the princess with your binoculars or a small telescope and look for a ghostly fuzzy patch. If you’re out in the countryside and really have dark skies you can see it with your naked eye. That fuzzy little patch is our Milky Way Galaxy’s next door neighbor, over 2 million light-years away with just one light year weighing in at almost 6 trillion miles! That little fuzzy patch is easily the home to over a trillion stars and many, many, many more planets!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul and is author of the book, “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications available at bookstores at http://www.adventurepublications.net.