Jimmy Westlake: Three leaps of the gazelle

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Jimmy Westlake

Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears Tuesdays in the Steamboat Today.

Find more columns by Westlake here.

I love star lore! The legends and stories attached to the stars carry us back hundreds or even thousands of years and tell us not only about the stars, but also about the stargazers of old.

With that in mind, I'd like to tell you about three pairs of stars that you can spot high overhead as darkness falls in late spring. Modern star charts show these stars as the toes of the Great Bear, Ursa Major, but to the Arabs of the Middle Ages, these stars were the Kafzah al Thiba, or the "Three Leaps of the Gazelle." To locate them, we first need to find the Great Bear.

This time of the year, Ursa Major is high overhead and awkwardly positioned upside down in our sky, so try this: Spread a blanket on the ground and lay down on your back with your feet pointed south. Now, as you glance back toward the north, you can see Ursa Major right side up without getting a creak in your neck. The seven bright stars of the Big Dipper should immediately jump out at you. Our asterism called the Big Dipper forms the hindquarters and tail of the Great Bear. Just ahead of the bowl of the Big Dipper, you can see the star Muscida marking the Bear's snout. The long tail of this celestial bear curves off to the east and points out the brightest star of spring, named Arcturus. The two stars at the end of the Dipper's bowl always point toward our North Star, Polaris. The legs and toes of the Great Bear extend up from the Dipper, tickling the overhead point of the sky. The six stars that mark the Bear's toes, in three distinct pairs, are not particularly bright but are very prominent nonetheless.

The great Arabian astronomer known as Ulugh Beg first recorded these stars as the Kafzah al Thiba, or the "Three Leaps of the Gazelle," back in the early 15th century, decades before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. The gazelle was imagined in the faint stars that today form our constellation Leo Minor, the Little Lion, and the swishing tail of the Big Lion, Leo, resting nearby, startled the gazelle. The tuft of hair on the end of Leo's tail is now our constellation Coma Berenices and can be seen as a fine mist of faint stars right behind the Bear.

I can just imagine the startled gazelle jumping off toward the west and leaving the three pairs of glowing hoof prints behind as Leo's tail lashes back and forth in the heavens!

See if you can spot the "Three Leaps of the Gazelle" for yourself on the next starry night.

Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have been published on the Web sites of CNN.com, NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day," Spaceweather.com, Space.com, Discover.com, and in Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, Night Sky, Discover, and WeatherWise magazines. His "Celestial News" article appears weekly in the local Steamboat Pilot newspaper.

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