Jimmy Westlake: Catch the Crow

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Catch Corvus the Crow cawing his way across our southern sky at about 10 p.m. in mid-May.

Jimmy Westlake

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

Find more columns by Westlake here.

— Winging his way across our springtime sky is a delightful little constellation named Corvus the Crow. The four main stars of Corvus form an unmistakable kite-shaped pattern located one-third the way up in our southern sky at about 10 p.m. in mid-May.

Its distinctive pattern makes Corvus easy to spot and resembles that of a much more famous star pattern, Crux the Southern Cross. Crux is not visible from our far northern latitude but is hiding just out of view below the horizon underneath Corvus.

Corvus' four brightest stars, starting at the top and proceeding clockwise, are Algorab, Gienah, Minkar and Kraz. Minkar marks the crow's head, Algorab his tail, and Gienah and Kraz represent the tips of his wings. In most constellations, the designation Alpha is bestowed upon the brightest star, but Corvus is a notable exception. In 1603, Johannes Bayer gave the Alpha distinction to Alchiba, an obscure little star just below Minkar and marking the Crow's beak. Could this be evidence that the star once appeared much brighter in our sky and has faded? No one knows.

Corvus is pictured in the sky as trying to steal a sip of water from Crater the Cup, his neighboring constellation to the west. Crater's stars are fainter than those of Corvus, but the goblet-shaped pattern is unmistakable. Crater's Alpha star, Alkes, marks a corner of the cup's base. Both of these constellations are precariously balanced on the back of Hydra the Water Snake.

There's a Greek legend that links all three of these constellations together. In it, Corvus is the beloved pet bird of the sun god Apollo, whose day job was driving the fiery chariot of the sun across the sky. One hot summer day, Apollo grew very thirsty and sent his beautiful white-feathered bird Corvus to fetch a drink of water from a nearby well. The bird flew off with the best of intentions, carrying Apollo's cup, but along the way to the well, Corvus was distracted by a fig tree and stopped to eat his fill of the sweet fruit. Realizing that he had tarried too long, Corvus devised an alibi. He picked up a scrawny little water snake in his beak and flew back to Apollo with an empty cup, explaining that the water snake had prevented him from reaching the well. Apollo was furious at this feeble lie and cursed the bird so severely that his white feathers turned jet black. He then tossed all three - the Crow, the Cup and the Water Snake - into the sky and changed them into stars. There, Corvus suffers eternal thirst as Hydra prevents him from drinking any water from Crater.

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