Per aspera ad astra

April 13, 2013 Comments Off on Per aspera ad astra

Okay, so the quest for spring continues. My plow guy told me a joke yesterday- “Did you hear about summer?” Margie: No, what’s up? Punchline: “Cancelled!” So failing spring type inspiration on the ground, I thought it was time to go back to the stars this week- at least there definite changes have taken place regardless of what the weather and jet stream seem to be dishing out down here. Which for whatever reason reminded me of something that was drilled into my head as a youngster going to school in Kansas. The Kansas state motto seems quite appropriate for this blog. It is as the “Per aspera ad astra” which one translation (the one I learned in elementary school!) says: “To the stars through difficulty.” Kinda hard to even see the stars through all the clouds and precipitation pouring out of them- but we will get there nevertheless.

So these days in the sky, Orion, one of the main winter constellations is quietly setting in the western sky, making way for the spring constellations. Another undeniable change in the night sky is that the Big Dipper is no longer pointing downward in the northern sky, we have shifted to the spring position. This is the point where the Big Dipper is highest in the sky and looks like it is pouring out all its contents on the land below. This also seems particularly appropriate this year, it’s all the Big Dippers fault. See the graphic below.

Image via

Besides its current position at its highest point in the sky, the Big Dipper is also a great directional tool to some of the easiest to find spring stars. The end two stars in the dipper portion of the Big Dipper are often called pointer stars. If you follow them upwards from the dipper they point you to the North Star or Polaris, the end of the Little Dipper. If you follow the same two stars downward from the dipper to the next brightest star you should hit Regulus the brightest star in the constellation Leo. The constellation Leo interestingly enough has long been associated with the Sun. This is because the sun rises in the constellation Leo at about the midsummer solstice. We could use a little more sun these days- go Leo!

Moving from the dipper stars to the handle stars of the Big Dipper, we can follow the curve of the handle or “Arc to Arcturus” and the saying goes. Arcturus is the 4th brightest star in the sky and the base of the constellation Bootes. Bootes is a fairly easy constellation to spot, it has a kite type shape and Arcturus is the point at the bottom of the kite. Arcturus is 36 light years away, fairly close in the realm of star distances and is considered to be one of the older stars in the universe, part of a group of stars called Population II stars. These stars typically have only small amounts of other elements beyond the standards: hydrogen and helium, suggesting that these stars formed early on in the development of the universe where there were few other elements available.

Following straight down from Arcturus, we “spike to Spica” which is a star in the constellation Virgo. In spring Virgo is visible just about the southern horizon, and Spica is mythologically the representation of an ear of wheat held by Virgo the virgin, and historically considered a sure sign that spring is coming. Some years are slower than others- but spring is there, it’s written in the stars. Just above Virgo towards the constellation Coma Berenices is a huge galaxy cluster that contains more than 3000 galaxies. At least a hundred of these are visible through a small telescope, and many evident with a pair of binoculars.

And on the far eastern portion of the sky we can just begin to see the beginning of the summer constellations with Hercules as the front runner. So here’s hoping that the plow guys joke is not going to come true, and that spring is lurking out there somewhere. “To the stars through difficulty, seems to be the story this year- but nevertheless to the stars we go for hope of spring!

These updates are made possible by a generous donation from David and Rosemary Good.