The flying horse of autumn is on a rescue mission
One of the great constellations of the Marshall autumn sky is Pegasus the winged horse, along with its next-door neighbor Andromeda the Princess. They’re easy to find. The first thing to look for is what’s called the square of Pegasus, although this time of year the square is orientated diagonally in the sky so look for a giant diamond of four stars about halfway up in the east-southeastern sky. That diamond, or tilted square, of Pegasus outlines the body or torso of the great horse.
A wonderful thing about constellations is that they’re subject to interpretation. Strictly speaking there’s nothing etched in stone about how you should visualize the creatures and figures in the stars. Traditionally, Pegasus is seen as a celestial horse flying upside down in the heavens with puny little wings. That’s fine with me although some of us stargazers, including yours truly, also see Pegasus another way. We see the giant horse proudly flying upright in the eastern sky with a giant wingspan. I want to show you this way of seeing Pegasus and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
According to Greek and Roman mythology the great square of Pegasus in the eastern sky is the torso of the big flying horse. It also resembles a giant baseball diamond. Home plate is at the top of the diamond, first base is the left side, third base is on the right corner, and second base is on the bottom.
Off of first base or the left corner, you can’t help but see a long, curved line of stars that arcs up and to the left. Traditional interpretation has that as the constellation Andromeda the Princess. In my version, that long line of stars is the giant wing of Pegasus the horse. Princess Andromeda is riding above the wing being pulled on a rope harnessed to Pegasus.
Off of home plate look for a faint line of stars that depicts his neck and head. Gazing off of third base you’ll see a crooked line of four stars that is the front leg of the horse.
According to legend, the great hero Perseus was sent on a mission to rid the countryside of the monster Medusa. He borrowed the winged shoes of Mercury, the messenger of gods, so he could fly around freely and carry out his mission. On his way back, toting the severed head of Medusa, Perseus noticed the beautiful Princess Andromeda on the seashore about to be devoured by a sea monster. As he swooped down for a closer look, some drops from Medusa’s head fell onto the sea and somehow that magically created the winged horse Pegasus. Don’t ask me how that happened!
Anyway Perseus was quick thinking on his winged feet and sent Pegasus swooping down to shore. Princess Andromeda was within 20 feet of the sea monster’s tentacles when the horse suddenly popped down on the shore next to her. With hardly a millisecond to spare Andromeda climbed onto Pegasus’ winged back and flew off to safety. Andromeda married Perseus as a reward and the couple lived happily ever after … until Perseus was killed in drunken swordfight at a local bar.
See if you can see Pegasus the same way I do. By the way, if you think you’ve seen a picture of the winged horse before, you have. Mobil gas stations have Pegasus as part of their logo.
One of the coolest celestial goodies in our sky, the Andromeda Galaxy, can be found just above Pegasus’s wing and Princess Andromeda. Scan that area of the heavens 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.
Admittedly the Andromeda Galaxy probably won’t make you do back flips when you see it, even in the biggest of telescopes. It’s like I said, a fuzzy white patch of light with a brighter center. But just know that you’re looking at a galaxy of possibly a trillion stars, much larger than our home galaxy. Also let it sink in that you’re observing something well over 2 million light-years away, with just one light- year equaling almost 6 trillion miles! That’s especially impressive if you spot it with the naked eye! In fact, the Andromeda Galaxy is the farthest thing away that can be seen with our God-given unaided eyes. Also, since it’s over 2 million light-years away, you’re not seeing it as it is right now but as it was over 2 million years ago. It’s taking the light that long just to get here!
One more thing. However, you choose to gaze on the Andromeda Galaxy, remember that our Milky Way and Andromeda are on a collision course. In about 4 billion years they’ll create a corporate merger of galactic proportions! The two galaxies are forging toward each other at better than 50 miles a second!
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.