One of the classic constellations of fall is Pegasus, the flying horse, which hovers in the evening sky above the southeastern horizon. It is by far the largest celestial horse we see in our night sky. The traditional interpretation of Pegasus is a horse flying upside down with puny little wings. If you can see it that way, more power to you. However, over the years I have deviated from this view of Pegasus and would like to share it with you. My take on Pegasus also includes taking over part of the adjacent constellation Andromeda, the Princess.
To me, Pegasus is a majestic right-side-up flying horse with a huge wingspan that saves the beautiful Princess Andromeda from a giant, ravenous sea monster. If I could show you Pegasus in person, I’m sure you’d be convinced. My take on Pegasus matches the flying red horse you see at Mobil gas stations. I realize that this talk of changing the interpretation of Pegasus and Andromeda is blasphemy to purists, but please allow me to exercise heavenly creative license. Stargazing should be fun!
Once it’s dark enough, look just above the eastern horizon for a giant diamond of four reasonably bright stars that outline the torso of Pegasus, also known as the “Square of Pegasus.” They are easy to spot because they are the brightest stars in this area of the sky. The star at the top of the diamond is Scheat, pronounced “she-at.” Don’t say the name of this star too quickly in front of the children! Scheat is the base of the flying horse’s neck. Above Scheat, look for two more stars outlining the rest of the neck, and another fairly faint star at the bottom right of the neck, marking the nose of the flying horse.
This horse has a multi-jointed front leg that runs upward in a curved line. To see it, start in Markab, at the right corner of Pegasus Square. From there, look for a curved line of slightly fainter stars extending to the upper right corner of Markab.
I love the name of the star in the left corner of the Pegasus square. It’s called Alpheratz, pronounced “Al-fee-rats.” You can’t help but see a curved line of three bright stars extending to the left of Alpheratz. I see in it the mighty wings of Pegasus. If you look across this bright row of stars, you will see another curved row of fainter stars. In it, Andromeda, the princess, can be seen riding on the horse’s hindquarters. In the traditional view of Pegasus flying upside down, the two curved star lines attached to Alpheratz form the constellation Andromeda, the Princess.
No matter how you look at the constellations Pegasus and Andromeda, the legend of how the beautiful princess was tied to the rump of a flying horse is part of the great Greek mythological story about Perseus, Cassiopeia, Pegasus and Princess Andromeda.
Perseus was the son of Zeus, king of the gods. When he returned from a mission, he witnessed a disturbing scene. The huge, ugly sea monster Cetus approached a beach where Princess Andromeda was chained to a rock by her parents, Cassiopeia and Cepheus, the king and queen of ancient Ethiopia. They were forced to offer their daughter to Cetus as a sacrifice to prevent their entire kingdom from being ravaged by the sea monster. Perseus had to save this damsel in distress, but he had to do it wisely.
The mission that Perseus had just completed was to cut off the head of Medusa, a terrible monster so ugly that anyone who looked at it was turned to stone. Entire communities were being stoned and it had to be stopped. Using the magical shield borrowed from Athena, the goddess of wisdom, Perseus cut off the monster’s head without getting stoned himself. Quick-thinking Perseus whipped out Medusa’s head and waved it at Cetus just before the monster ate Princess Andromeda for lunch. That was all it took! Cetus sank into the depths and was never seen again! By the way, Cetus is also a constellation not far from Pegasus, but very faint.
But that’s not all. Blood from Medusa’s severed head hit the ocean waves and magically gave birth to Pegasus, a beautiful horse with white wings, who instinctively flew down to the boulder that Andromeda was on, chewed off the chains, and then flew the princess to Perseus , where it was love at first sight. Perseus and Andromeda were soon married in a lavish royal wedding. Was it a happy life for the new couple? Not quite. A few years after the wedding, Perseus found himself on the wrong end of the sword in a drunken brawl.
Astronomically speaking, the Andromeda Galaxy, also known as Messier Object 31, is one of the most beautiful celestial jewels in the night sky. Scan the area of sky directly above the princess with your binoculars or a small telescope and look for a ghostly, blurry spot. If you are in the country and the sky is really dark, you can see it with the naked eye. The Andromeda Galaxy, the Milky Way’s closest neighbor, is over 2 million light-years away, with just one light-year weighing nearly 6 trillion miles. It is also much larger than the Milky Way. This small, fuzzy spot is easily home to potentially a trillion stars and many, many more planets!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations, published by Adventure Publications and available in bookstores and at www.adventurepublications.net. Mike is available for private star parties. You can contact him at email@example.com.