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Mebsuta's Lariat
by Barry Peckham, Sidewalk Astronomer in Wikiki 


As often happens, January has given us night sky lovers in Hawaii a heaping handful of clear, calm nights. They don’t always fall on a Saturday, so wary watchers must do their gazing wherever possible. I live less than a mile from downtown Honolulu and my tiny yard has its share of sky obstructions, but it is better than useless, and I have been planting a scope there on nights when I can make progress with my carbon star hunt.

 

I have been using the Pocket Sky Atlas as a carbon star finder. Map 23 shows part of Auriga and part of Gemini, 2 constellations that are high in the sky on January evenings. The chart identified UU Aurigae as a carbon star so I found it and sketched its starfield, as required by the Astronomical League for their official recognition. It turned out that I had found this target a year ago, and also sketched its field at that time. Not only was the effort redundant, but the 2 sketches hardly matched. I next sought out a carbon star between Pollux’s neck and belly button stars. Nothing looked right in 20 minutes of hunting. So it goes with carbon stars.

 

In frustration, I looked at this one chart for other objects of interest. There is a small globular cluster several degrees north of Castor, so I tried star-hopping to it… over and over and over. It would not show up, but for a faint smudgy suspect around a faint star, and higher power did not help.

 

Doubly frustrated, I began doing what the go-to folks rarely do… with eye to the eyepiece, I began wandering around the sky. My meander began at Mebsuta, Castor’s belly button star. An open cluster, NGC 2266, lurked nearby, but I couldn’t detect it. What did stand out, at 45X in an 8 inch scope, was a lariat of faint stars, extending to the north of Mebsuta. The lasso is a wide, thin ellipse made from a dozen stars, including 2 doubles. It is almost half a degree wide. The rope extending up to Mebsuta (meaning “outstretched paw”) is a stream of faint stars, simulating a lariat in motion.

 

It is known to many that John Dobson travelled constantly and carried little with him, barely a change of clothes, but almost always packed a lariat which he spun in public places to attract an audience. The moment I saw Mebsuta’s lariat, I also saw Dobson twirling his rope in an airport lobby, trying to strike up a conversation about the night sky.

 

And so it was that golden Mebsuta the supergiant used its lariat to rope me, from 900 light years away, and my evening of astronomical frustration was corralled in the pleasant form of wonder.

 

Barry Peckham (sidewalk astronomer in Waikiki)

 


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