The stars of spring glitter across the evening sky in May. Around 9 p.m., the Big Dipper is high up in the north, its “bowl” appearing upside down. Gemini the Twins are standing on their “feet” in the west. Leo the Lion is leaping high in the south. Over in the east is the amazing bright orange star Arcturus at the end of the “kite” shape of Bootes the Hersdman, and below that is a capital “D”.
A capital D?
I refer to the constellation Corona Borealis, the Northern Crown. There are seven stars easy to see in a reasonably dark sky, forming a neat half-circle. Its brightest star, called Gemma, shines at +2nd magnitude, similar in brightness to the brighter stars of the Big Dipper or the well-known stars of the “belt” of Orion (a winter evening constellation).
When the constellation is rising in the east, the orientation makes it look like a capital D. The large star pattern of the “kite”, a part of Bootes, is seen directly above Corona Borealis, and is oriented with the kite is on its side, and Arcturus on the far right.
If you were to wait till about midnight in early May, the turning Earth on which you ride, will have placed Corona Borealis at its highest in the southern sky. The “D” is  now more like a “smile” with Gemma shining like a bright silver tooth. Bootes is now on the right, high in the south, with the “kite” nearly straight up and Arcturus at bottom.
This orientation, for both constellations, is pretty much kept as they swing down in the western sky. At this time off year you need be looking at 4 a.m. I know there are some of you who actually rise so early on a regular basis and some by choice! Be sure to let me know how the sky looks at such an hour!! (I have seen it by the way, just not as often!)
Like all classic constellations, there are imaginative stories behind them, and it depends on the culture. Various ancient peoples traced the stars their own ways, though some obvious patterns were common but had different names and myths.
The Greeks saw the Northern Crown as the diadem of Ariadne, who was deserted by the brave Theseus, son of the King of Athens. Theseus had been given to the ferocious Minotaur (half man and half bull) of Crete as a tribute. Theseus had been confined to a labyrinth. His lady friend Ariadne had given him a sword and a spool of thread. The sword was to slay the Minotaur and the thread was to leave a line so Theseus could find his way out of the maze. He killed his foe and escaped, but then abandoned poor Ariadne. The deities pitied her and immortalized her in the sky with her crown.
The Shawnee Indians called the star pattern the “Celestial Sisters” (not in English of course). The Arabs imagined the group of stars as forming a dish.
The Australian Aborigines pictured it as a boomerang knows Woomera.
So I called it a letter “D”. You can call it by any name, just enjoy the stars!
Next to the Crown is a famous star you normally need a small telescope to pick out. Known as T Coronae Borealis or the “Blaze Star,” this is a recurring nova that has periodically burst forth in magnitude. In 1946 it rose to +2nd magnitude, similar to Gemma. “T” is a red giant star, around 2,000 light years from the Sun.
Gemma is 72 light years away and varies slightly in brightness every 17.36 days as a companion star periodically eclipses the other.
We called it the “Northern Crown” to distinguish it from Corona Australis, the Southern Crown. This small constellation, best seen far south, is visible low in the sky from mid-northern America, just below the famous “Teapot” asterism of the Sagittarius constellation, well seen on summer evenings.
New Moon is Saturday May 4. See the Moon as a growing crescent shape, this coming week.
Keep looking up!