Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that there was a solar eclipse this morning. Despite the sky being covered in dense cloud since dawn, I managed to get a few shots of the moon passing in front of the sun in the rare moments when the clouds cleared.
It was a strange experience; the sky darkened, it got very cold, the wind picked up, and an eerie silence settled as the birds retreated to the trees and stopped singing. Our cats were particularly flummoxed by the whole thing, and some confused looking sheep in the surrounding fields lay down to have an extra sleep – lucky for some. It really was an amazing thing to witness.
March is the National Trust’s stargazing month, and it’s certainly been a great month for watching the skies. As well as the eclipse, we ushered the month in with a full moon on the 5th, a micro moon, the smallest and furthest away moon of the year. On Tuesday morning it was reported that a coronal mass ejection had hit the Earth’s magnetic field and sparked a massive geomagnetic storm, causing the usually elusive Northern Lights to be visible as far south as the Lake District. As per, our sky was entirely obscured by a canopy of cloud and we didn’t manage to spot even a glimmer of the Aurora. The next night, of course, was beautifully clear! Sigh.
Today, the 20th March, is the vernal equinox, when day and night are exactly the same length. The days will now start to get longer, which I’m really looking forward to as it’ll allow us to get out into the garden in the evenings! The equinox traditionally marks the beginning of spring and is a time of rebirth, linked to Easter and Passover. In recent years it’s arrived in the middle of a week of solid rain and cold, but given that we had our first full day of sun on Wednesday, and another lovely day yesterday, things are looking promising this year.
We’ve all been enjoying the BBC’s Stargazing Live that started on Wednesday, especially Esme. Fortunately our house is situated away from any major light pollution so we get a fantastic view of the stars if it’s a clear night, and Esme and I often nip out for a look to see which constellations we can identify. I made these spring stargazing sheets so she could keep track of the constellations she’s seen and those that she’s yet to find.
North Facing Constellations
Cassiopeia was a beautiful but arrogant queen in Greek mythology. Poseidon placed her in the heavens as punishment for boasting that she and her daughter, Andromeda, were more beautiful than the Nereids. She’s tied to a chair that rotates around the North Celestial Pole, reflected in the fact that her constellation rotates through 360° over the course of a day.
In Greek Mythology, Cepheus was the husband of Cassiopeia and father of Andromeda. His constellation represents him sitting on his throne, arms outstretched, begging the gods to spare the life of his daughter.
Perseus is the Greek hero who slayed Medusa and rescued Andromeda from the sea monster Cetus.
To the Greeks, Taurus represented Zeus in the form of the white bull that seduced Europa and carried her to Crete. To the Mesopotamians, it was the Bull of Heaven, created by Ishtar to destroy Gilgamesh after he spurned her advances. In ancient Egypt, it was the representative of Isis.
The Pleiades is a cluster of seven stars found on the shoulder of Taurus the bull, named for the seven daughters of Pleione and Atlas. Orion relentlessly pursued the beautiful young Pleiades until Zeus heard their pleas for help to escape the hunter’s advances. Zeus transformed the seven sisters into doves, placing them amongst the stars. Zeus later added Orion to the heavens behind the Pleiades, immortalising the chase.
Auriga is usually depicted as a charioteer holding an adult goat and two kids with his left arm and clasping the reins of his chariot in his right hand. The major stars of the constellation form the shape of a charioteer’s pointed helmet. Capella, meaning female goat in Latin, is the star that marks the adult goat the charioteer carries, representing Amalthaea, who nursed the infant Zeus on Crete. Capella’s neighbouring stars, Eta and Zeta Aurigae, represent the two kids she bore there.
The Big and Little Dippers are asterisms rather than constellations, recognisable patterns of stars that are part of a larger constellation. The Dippers are part of the constellations of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, and are so called because their major stars form the outline of a ladle, or dipper. This pattern is also known as the Plough, the Great Wagon, and the Salmon Net.
The origins of Bootes are not entirely clear. The word comes either from the Greek, meaning plowman, or from Latin, meaning herdsman. In Homer’s Odyssey he is referred to as the driver of the plough.
In Greek mythology, Draco represents the dragon who guarded the golden apples of the Hesperides, killed by Hercules during his twelve labours. The constellation of Hercules is found just to the right of Draco, kneeling with one foot on the dragon’s head.
The Corona Borealis, or northern crown, is recognised by various cultures in their mythologies. In Greek mythology it represents the crown gifted to Ariadne by Dionysus that she wore to their wedding. Dionysus then placed the crown in the heavens to commemorate their union. The Aboriginies call it womera, the boomerang. For the Native American tribe of the Pawnee it represents a council of stars, chaired by Polaris. To the Bedouin people it’s known as qas’at al-masakin, or the bowl of the poor.
The constellation of Cygnus, the swan, has been linked to various mythological figures, most frequently with the swan that Zeus disguised himself as to seduce the King of Sparta’s wife, Leda. Leda subsequently gave birth to the twins Castor and Pollux, represented in the constellation of Gemini. Cygnus contains the asterism of the Northern Cross at its centre.
South Facing Constellations
Arguably the most widely known constellation, Orion can quickly be identified by the three stars set on the diagonal that make up his belt. He is recognised by many cultures but is perhaps best known as the great hunter of Greek mythology.
Canis Major represents one of Orion’s two hunting dogs, following their master through the night sky. The constellation is home to Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest star in the sky.
The constellation of Lepus represents the hare being hunted by Orion and his hunting dogs. It was placed in the heavens by Hermes, the winged messenger of the gods, who honoured the hare for its speed.
The constellation of Gemini represents the twins Castor and Pollux. Born to Zeus and Leda, Pollux was immortal and Castor mortal. When Castor was ambushed and murdered, Zeus offered the distraught Pollux the ability to grant half of his immortality to his brother. Pollux accepted, and Zeus placed the inseperable twins in the heavens.
Whilst the saying that March comes in like a lion might not always be accurate it’s certainly appropriate for the constellation of Leo, which becomes visible around the spring equinox. Leo is one of the oldest recognised constellations, with archaeological evidence suggesting that the Mesopotamians acknowledged it as a constellation as early as 4000BCE. Leo is associated with the Nemean Lion, slain by Hercules during the first of his twelve labours.
Virgo is the second largest constellation in the night sky, smaller only than the Hydra. The Babylonians knew the constellation as the Furrow, a name derived from its brightest star, Spica, Latin for ‘ear of grain’. Virgo is most closely associated wth Persephone, the daughter of the harvest goddess Demeter.
Apollo gave his sacred crow a cup and sent him to fetch water from a running spring. After several days the crow returned, blaming his tardiness on a water snake blocking the spring when in fact it had taken him so long to return because he had waited for some figs to ripen so that he could eat them. Apollo quickly saw through the crow’s lies and punished him by condemning him to a life of thirst. Apollo placed the crow and the water snake in the heavens as the constellations Corvus and Hydra, just out of reach of the cup, Crater, ensuring the crow would forever be thirsty.
Cancer, latin for crab, is one of the dimmest constellations in the spring sky. In Greek mythology it represents the crab that Hera, queen of the gods, sent to distract Hercules during his battle with the Lernaean hydra. It wasn’t a very succesful mission as Hercules simply gave the crab a good kick and propelled it into the heavens.
Monoceros, the unicorn, was first recorded as a constellation in 1612 by the Dutch cartographer Petrus Plancius. As a modern constellation it doesn’t have any myths associated with it – perhaps you should make up one of your own?
The constellation of Lynx is another relatively modern construct, first recorded by polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius in 1687. Hevelius is said to have named the constellation after the lynx because it was so faint, and only those with the eyesight of a lynx could see it. It has also been linked with Lynceus, a sailor who traveled with the Argonauts and reportedly had the best eyesight in the world.