The summer hunter begins his long goodbye
There are two great hunters in the night sky over Marshall. In the winter time it’s the mighty constellation Orion the Hunter, and in the summer it’s Bootes the Hunting Farmer. Since early this spring Bootes has graced our skies, but now it’s beginning its gradual farewell. Bootes, like several constellations and stars, has several acceptable pronunciations. Most people say Boot-tees, but I’ve also heard it pronounced boo-oat-tees. No matter how you pronounce it Bootes resembles a giant kite flying high in the western skies in the early evening. Finding Bootes early in the evening is easy. Just look for the brightest star you can see in the high western sky. That’s Arcturus, not only the brightest star in Bootes, but the second brightest star we see in our entire night sky anytime of the year. It’s certainly the brightest star of summer!
If you need rock solid confirmation that you’re seeing Arcturus use the old stargazing rule “arc to Arcturus.” Look at the nearby Big Dipper in the northwestern sky and follow the curve or arc of its handle beyond the end of the handle and you’ll run right into the bright orange tinged star. Arcturus appears to be at the tail of a giant upright celestial kite. Just look above Arcturus and without too much trouble you should see the rest of the kite.
Arcturus’ orange glow is typical of stars classified as red giants. Even though Arcturus is 25 times the diameter of our sun, it’s only 1.5 times as massive. Arcturus is running out of hydrogen fuel in its core. When that happens stars puff out into red giants. This will happen to our own sun in about 5 billion years. We’re looking at our future, like it or not! Arcturus is just about 37 light-years away, or about 214 trillion miles away, and believe it or not that’s considered a nearby star. Arcturus is so far away that the light we see from it tonight left that star in 1982 when Ronald Reagan was our president.
As August rolls into and through September and then October, Arcturus and Bootes will start out the evening lower and lower in the western sky. By late October Bootes will pretty much already be below the horizon at the end of evening twilight. That’s because of the never relenting orbit of our Earth around the sun. Our early evening view is gradually turning away from that part of space, not to be seen again in the evening until next March.
As it is with many constellations, there are many mythological stories about how Bootes got in the sky. Probably the one that’s best known is the one about how Bootes, out of desperate poverty, invented a plow that could be pulled by oxen. Ceres, the goddess of agriculture was so impressed with Bootes that when he died she transformed his body into a constellation. While he was alive one of Bootes’ passions was hunting, so when he died Ceres placed Bootes up in the heavens and put him on the everlasting pursuit of the Big Bear Ursa Major. Bootes is having the time of his life, or should I say afterlife.
That’s a nice story, but the one I love is involves one of my heroes, Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. Bootes, also known as Icarius, was the proprietor of a large vineyard, and grew the best grapes in all the land. Bacchus was so impressed with Bootes’ vineyard that he revealed the secret of wine making to him. Bootes immediately got all his friends together for a wine tasting party that quickly got out of hand and turned into a wine gulping party. Most of the guests passed out and they all woke up the next day with massive hangovers. Not knowing about the intoxicating effects of wine, many of them thought that Bootes was trying to poison them. Before the first wine maker woke up that morning, his former friends took spears and rocks to him.
When Bacchus heard this, he took pity on Bootes and transformed his lifeless beaten body into stars. So the next time you’re out there in the evening, raise your glasses to the constellation Bootes. He gave his life for you!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is also the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and at adventurepublications.net.