Stargazing: The Beauty of Boötes
There’s nothing quite as awe-inspiring as looking up at the night sky and viewing the majesty of the millions of stars scattered about. It is an age-old ritual that doesn’t require the use of a camera, phone, or computer. This beauty has been revered for the entire existence of the human race, and the stars remain one of the most talked about subjects throughout the planet.
It’s no surprise that we’ve given names to prominent stars and even created pictures out of certain patterns. The stars can align themselves in interesting ways, and we can interpret them to make beautiful pictures, known as constellations. Most people are aware of some of the major constellations, such as the Big and Little Dipper, Orion, and Taurus. But there are a variety of other constellations that are just as beautiful, even if they aren’t as well known.
The Boötes Constellation is one such star configuration that isn’t quite as well known as many of its celestial counterparts. Boötes is one of the 48 constellations discovered by Ptolemy, the famous 2nd century astronomer, and it currently belongs to the collection of 88 modern constellations that are recognized by the International Astronomical Union. So, it isn’t exactly obscure, but many people are still unaware of its existence.
The word “boötes” is Greek for herdsman or plowman. In other words, it is someone who might command a beast of burden such as an ox. In one mythological tradition, Boötes is believed to be a herdsman with two hunting dogs on a leash as well as a club in his other hand. While it may not be particularly obvious upon first viewing, one can easily imagine where these stories come from after taking a closer look.
According to another myth, Boötes invented the plow, and the ancient gods memorialized him by giving him a constellation – in this case being interpreted as a plow with two oxen.
Many say that the constellation resembles a kite with two legs or an ice cream cone. When viewed vertically, this seems to make sense, and may be the easiest way to pick Boötes out of the sky.
By Till Credner - Own work: AlltheSky.com
Location of the Boötes Constellation
Boötes is located in the northern sky between 0 and +60 declination. If you can find the Big Dipper, then you should be able to follow its handle until you come to a bright start known as Arcturus. This is the brightest start in the Boötes constellation. From here, you should see the kite formation below Arcturus, and the two legs at the bottom of the kite.
To the south of Boötes is the Virgo constellation, and Ursa Major lies to the northwest. Hercules, Corona Borealis, and Serpens Caput all lie to the east.
Stars that make up Boötes
Although Boötes is made up of a total of 29 stars, we will focus on the brightest, most prominent stars that can be seen by the naked eye on a clear night.
As previously mentioned, Arcturus is the brightest star in the constellation, but it is also an orange giant that is the fourth brightest star in the night sky. Arcturus 36.7 light years from earth, making the brightest star in the northern hemisphere.
Making up the top of Boötes’ left leg is Eta Boötis, also known as Muphrid. This star is 37 light years from earth and rests only about 3.3 light years away from Arcturus.
Boötes’ head is marked by Beta Boötis, a yellow giant also named Nekkar. Beta Boötis is significantly further than the previous two, at about 225.4 light years away from earth.
At about 85 light years from earth, Gamma boötis, or Seginus, rounds out Boötes’ left shoulder. Mu Boötis is a triple star that makes up Boötes’ staff, and it lies approximately 121 light years from earth.
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History and Legend of Boötes
It is believed that the Boötes stars were originally observed by ancient Babylonians, who depicted them as Enlil, a god who was generally associated with wind, air, and earth. At the same time, Egyptians may have seen Boötes as the foreleg of an ox.
Written references to Boötes date as far back as Homer’s Odyssey, the epic poem written in the 8th century BC. Boötes was mentioned as a reference point for navigation, suggesting that the Greek readers at the time would understand how to identify the constellation.
Another legend involves Icarius, who was murdered by shepherds in an apparent act of revenge after he poisoned their friends with wine. Icarius’ dog, Maera, and daughter, Erigone, committed suicide shortly after. As the story goes, Zeus wanted to honor the family by giving them their own constellations, with Icarius as Boötes, Maera as Canis Major, and Erigone as Virgo.
There are many stories surrounding the legend of Boötes, and their origins differ greatly from place to place. One thing that remains constant is that Boötes is a majestic constellation that has graced our skies for millennia, and continues to be a worthy conversational centerpiece.