Jimmy Westlake: Ariadne’s crown
June 9, 2010
Steamboat Springs — One of the smallest of our 88 constellations shines down on us in late spring and early summer. It's not particularly bright, but its distinctive shape makes it a favorite among sky watchers. It represents the golden, star-studded crown of Greek Princess Ariadne, and it's known as our constellation of Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown.
In the year 1590, Edmund Spenser referred to Corona Borealis in his epic poem "The Faerie Queen" with these words:
"Looke! How the crown which Ariadne wore
Upon her ivory forehead, …
Being now placed in the firmament,
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Through the bright heavens doth her beams display,
And is unto the starres an ornament,
Which round about her move in order excellent."
To locate Corona Borealis, look in the early evening high up in the eastern sky for a small half-circle of stars, like a letter C. It's about a third of the way from the bright star Arcturus toward the comparably bright star Vega to the east. A person with normal vision should be able to see seven glittering stars outlining the celestial crown. The brightest of the seven is a star known by two different names, Alphecca, meaning "the broken circle," and Gemma, meaning "the jewel of the crown."
I have a childhood memory of this delightful little constellation. I can remember being outside with my mother one warm Georgia night, looking up at the amazing star-filled sky.
Even at the age of 5, I was a budding astronomer.
Not really knowing what I was looking at, I pointed out the C-shaped pattern of Corona Borealis and speculated to my mother that the brightest star was probably a sun, like ours, and the other bright stars in the C were planets orbiting around that sun.
It was some years later when I realized I actually had seen the Northern Crown with its bright star Gemma.
Corona Borealis has within its borders one of the most unusual stars known, a "reverse nova" named R Coronae Borealis.
Typically a sixth-magnitude star — just at the limit of naked-eye visibility — it occasionally will fade to only 1/1600th its usual brightness before slowly recovering. Astronomers think that this peculiar behavior is because of the formation of carbon soot in the star's atmosphere.
R Coronae Borealis bears constant watching because its light variations are completely unpredictable. Its most recent episode of dimming happened in 2003. You can find it with binoculars near the center of the C pattern of Ariadne's crown.
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 all around the world. Check out Jimmy's astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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