Astro Bob: Summer stroll under Big Dipper
Arcturus and the Big Dipper make fine companions on a summer night walk.
I walk almost every night. When it's clear, the stars are my companions. I used to have a dog. One of us always had his nose in the sky, the other pointed at the ground. On August nights, I can still easily see the Milky Way from my neighborhood as long as the moon's not too bright.
Moon or not, I always see the Big Dipper and its neighbor, Arcturus, this time of year. They float together in the west-northwest sky at nightfall. In fall, the Dipper's too low for a good look. In spring, it's so high overhead you forget to look up. In August, the bowl and handle are a bright spoonful of stars in the northwestern sky that takes little effort to see.
Follow the curve of the Dipper's handle, and you'll land on Arcturus, the third-brightest nighttime star after Sirius and Canopus. Its warm, red sparkle catches the eye. When the atmosphere is unsteady, the star twinkles or pulses like a fluttering heart. It's ironic that something as insubstantial as air can push around a star 25 times larger than the sun after its light has spent 37 years clawing across space to reach your eye. The indignity.
Both the Big Dipper and Arcturus have been part of the celestial landscape since late winter. There's something in how they pair together in the northwestern sky that makes them especially appealing and worth a second look. Arcturus comes from the Greek "Arktouros," meaning "keeper of the bear" or "guardian of the bear." That's exactly what he looks like he's doing, too. The shiny red star follows closely behind the bear's tail keeping an eye on things.
Arcturus resides in Bootes the Herdsman, a constellation shaped like an sugar cone packed with a double scoop of ice cream. The bright star gleams at the base of the cone, marking the location of the hidden chocolate. Some people see the same stars as a kite instead.
I still don't really know why I stare at the stars all the time. I could tell you all kinds of interesting facts about their origin, makeup and evolution or explain how each is a distant version of the sun — hot, radiant and lighting the daytime skies of countless planets. Mostly though, I just look up and love that they're there, without thinking about anything in particular.
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune.