I was startled two nights ago when I turned down the road and spied pink Arcturus scintillating low in the eastern sky. With snow all around and more on the way, my psyche was steeped in winter. So what was this big, bright spring star doing staring me in the face?
After the sun, Arcturus is the 4th brightest star in the sky. It pokes up around 10 o’clock in late February. You’ll find it with ease simply by following the curve of the Big Dipper’s handle downward toward the eastern horizon. Its name comes from the ancient Greek word “arktos” for bear and means “Guardian of the Bear”. Appropriate considering it rides herd on Ursa Major the Great Bear, the brightest part of which is the Big Dipper.
The calendar notwithstanding, Arcturus is a true “spring star”. Come May, when the first mosquitos begin to whine, you’ll find it perched high in the southern sky lording over the landscape much as Orion does now during the early evening hours.
Right now the Bear Watcher is hunkered down in the east, sparking through tree branches and over neighborhood rooftops. Twinkling, most obvious in the brighter stars, is caused by shifting air currents that are more pronounced at lower altitudes.
Funny that the atmosphere can jiggle the light of such a massive star about as if it were as flighty a thing as a dandelion seed. Arcturus is an orange giant star 25 times larger than the sun, but all that girth is reduced to a trembling point of light 36 light years (216 trillion miles) from Earth. Its true brilliance is likewise masked by distance. Put in place of the sun, Arcturus would dazzle 113 times brighter and cover an area of sky half as big as the Big Dipper. As for color, it looks pinkish to my eye. Others see it as red-orange.
Watch this flush-faced star loft higher and higher in the east in the coming weeks with the return of the spring season. There’s a special bonus if you go out tonight. The moon, on its way to becoming the Full Snow Moon tomorrow night, will shine near Leo the Lion’s brightest star Regulus.