By Dr. Maureen Hunter
Old Ryan and his dog
A star pupil gets a lesson in celestial mechanics
“IT’S NEARLY 10 P.M.,” I comment, prepared to herd my youngest child inside the house. “I think it’s time for bed.”
“But Mom,” she moans. “I’m not tired.” In the wake of a suspiciously balmy Halloween night, my husband, daughter and I sit out on our deck, admiring the stars in the night sky. Amid an unhealthy number of candy wrappers, my daughter holds a flashlight in one hand and a pencil in the other. The paper in front of her features a Halloween-themed connect the dots picture.
“I want to stay up and see Old Ryan and his dog.” Then she wisely adds, “Please.”
My husband glances between us. “Old Ryan and his dog?”
“Orion the Hunter and Sirius,” I supply. “I can’t wait to see Orion again. I haven’t seen him since spring when he set in the western sky just after sunset. I’ve really missed him.”
“Old Ryan is Mom’s boyfriend,” singsongs my daughter.
I laugh then try to pick out the constellation’s stars on the eastern horizon. “Old certainly isn’t just a nickname. Homer mentions Orion in the Iliad in the 8th Century. People have probably befriended Orion for millennia.”
“Even if Old Ryan was your mother’s boyfriend, they’d have a pretty long-distance relationship,” my husband says, throwing an exaggerated wink.
“That’s true,” I say. “My two favorite stars in Orion are Rigel and Betelgeuse, and they’re more than 600 light years away.”
“Rigel and what?” my daughter shrieks.
“Betelgeuse,” I answer.
“Don’t say that name again!” My daughter jumps up, the flashlight in her fist twisting light this way and that. “That’s the name of a ghost in a movie. And if you say his name three times, he’ll show up right here!”
“That’s a different Betelgeuse,” my husband assures. Still, my daughter darts her head around, looking for the rogue ghoul. “The one you’re thinking of is Beetlejuice. The star Betelgeuse is spelled differently, even though it sounds the same.”
“I believe that the ghoul was named after the superstar in Orion. Actually, Betelgeuse is a red super giant star,” I say. “But Betelgeuse is running out of hydrogen to fuse into helium. It’s dying and puffing itself up. If we placed Betelgeuse where our sun is, it would go past Jupiter. Astronomers predict it may be the next star in our sky to go supernova. The explosion will be spectacular, glowing for weeks, even during the day.”
“When could that happen?” asked my daughter.
“Soon,” I answer. “Sometime in the next few million years.”
“That’s soon?” questions my husband, shaking his head. “And what’s up with Old Ryan’s dog?”
“Well, Sirius is our sky’s brightest star, and the dog days of summer were named after it.”
“Are you serious?” My husband smiles.
“Cute.” I smile back, “In ancient Greece, Sirius rose just before the sun at the start of the hottest days of summer, and it was believed that the dog star added heat to that of the sun.”
“Cool,” my daughter crows.
“Actually, one of the really cool things about Orion is that you can see the different colors of his stars. Betelgeuse, his right shoulder, is red-orange. Rigel, his left knee, is blue-white.
“And his famous three-starred belt is blue. Blue stars are the hottest, while red stars are the coolest. We won’t see Old Ryan this evening, but in a month he’ll rise two hours earlier. Now it’s time for bed,” I say to my daughter.
She lifts her paper, revealing a connect the dots image of a witch flying on a broom, stars gleaming behind her. I notice that one of the stars had been enlarged into a reddish-orange face like a jack-o-lantern.
“It’s Betelgeuse. You said it more than three times.” And she runs inside, neglecting to collect her strewn Halloween candy wrappers.
“I guess you still like to play connect the dots too,” my husband chuckles.
“I do,” I say, gazing up into the night sky.
Maureen Hunter is the technical service manager for King Industries, Inc. in Norwalk, Conn.
You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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