Ah, Capella!


Last week I spotted a light through the windshield. It was a sight that catches me by surprise every year when it comes around again. It was Capella, the bright star that’s rising in the northeast nowadays. It’s back. Which means that another year has just about slipped away. It’s not a year that will be soon forgotten on Saipan, that’s for sure.

Capella is rising about one hour after sunset, thereafter remaining in the sky all night.

Capella takes my mind off practical matters, which, for me, start to really accumulate in the fourth quarter because I am an accomplished procrastinator. By early November things look pretty hopeless. That’s because they are. So here’s what I say: Never give up giving up.

With that in mind, I’ll note that Capella’s annual re-appearance provides this reminder: We’re on the cusp of the calendar where just a little more misfeasance can kick things clear into next year. This provides a clean slate for the remainder of the year, and it does wonders for my holiday frame of mind.

I like to watch Capella rise and then watch Orion follow its rise about 90 minutes later. It’s very relaxing.

Capella is one of the brightest stars you can see from Saipan. It’s probably No. 6 on the rankings of stars in the night sky if you bothered to make a list, but not all stars are visible all times of year.

I’ll confess that Capella attracts my eye more for what it represents (a harbinger of winter and of Orion) than for what it really is on its own merits. I didn’t realize that I was giving it short shrift until somebody asked me if Capella is just a single star all by its lonely self up there, or if it might be two or even more stars in a gravitationally-bound system.

That’s a good question. I had to look that one up.

As it turns out, Capella is a four-star system. Hey, pretty cool. The main action comes from two super-sized stars that are in extremely close orbit of each other. They’re closer together than the distance between the Earth and the sun. Very distant from that cozy twosome are two red-dwarf stars that are orbiting each other. Capella is quite the odd family.

At a distance of 43 light-years, Capella is fairly close to us by stellar standards. For the sake of comparison, the closest star you can see from Earth (besides the sun, of course) is Alpha Centauri, about 4 light-years distant. It’s visible from Saipan in the summer, but the vast majority of the U.S. mainland never gets to see it at all.

By contrast, of the most prominent star in the night sky, the most distant I’m aware of, is Deneb, which is about 2,600 light-years away. To be prominent from that vast distance is quite a feat. Deneb outshines our sun by a factor of something like 100,000 times or 200,000 times. The universe is sure an extreme proposition.

Unlike Alpha Centauri, though, Deneb doesn’t give Saipan any bragging rights over the mainland. Deneb is part of the famous “southern triangle” and is visible from the mainland as well.

While I’m on a roll here, I’ll offer just one more point of comparison for the distance thing. Polaris, also known as the North Star, is about 430 light-years away. It can be seen anywhere in the northern hemisphere.

The southern hemisphere, incidentally, doesn’t have a southern star. That’s a pretty rotten deal if you’re trying to do some basic orientation by the stars. If you’re wondering why anybody would ever find themselves in that sort of situation, well, I wound up in that situation when I first worked on the South seas. On a related note, you have probably heard of the Southern Cross. It can be used as a pointer to where the southern star would be if there was one. This is a matter better learned from a book before needing it than having to observe the sky for long enough to figure it out on your own.

But that’s a tale for a different time. For now, I take comfort knowing that Capella’s arrival is part of a grand rhythm that provides a constant element in life.

By contrast, everything on Earth has a way of changing too quickly. Except for procrastination, that is; some things are so constant they’ll probably outlive the stars.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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