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 centuries 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 a story about three pairs of stars that you can spot almost overhead as darkness falls in the late spring. Modern star charts indicate that these stars are 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 herself.
This time of the year, Ursa Major is awkwardly positioned upside down, high overhead in the northern 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, Ursa Major. Just in front of the Big Dipper’s bowl, you can find the star Muscida marking the Bear’s nose. The long tail of this celestial bear curves off to the east and points to 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 upward from the Dipper, tickling the overhead point of the sky. The six stars that mark the Bear’s toes, in three distinct pairs, are very prominent.
The great Arabian astronomer named Ulugh Beg (ooloog bayg) recorded these six stars first as the “Kafzah al Thiba,” or the “Three Leaps of the Gazelle,” back in the early 1400s, not long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. The gazelle was imagined grazing among the stars that form our faint constellation of Leo Minor, the Little Lion. When the Big Lion, Leo, swished his tail across the sky, it startled the gazelle. He then made three quick jumps off to the east and left three pairs of glowing hoof prints behind. The faint mist of stars that forms our constellation of Coma Berenices represents the tuft of hair on the end of Leo’s tail.
I can imagine this comical celestial drama playing out in the spring stars each time I spot the “Kafzah al Thiba.” Give it a try next time you’re out under a starry sky.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out Westlake’s astrophotography website at www.jwestlake.com.