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May 26, 2010

The brightest stars of the constellation Ursa Major, the great bear, form a pattern that's known here in the United States as the Big Dipper. But other parts of the world see the pattern as a plow. And if you have a plow, it only makes sense that you'd have a plowman to use it.

In some stories, the plowman is the next constellation over -- Bootes, the herdsman.

A story from Greek mythology says that the goddess Demeter passed along knowledge of agriculture through a herdsman, who in turn passed it on to the rest of humanity. When the herdsman helped her find her kidnapped daughter, she rewarded him by placing him in the stars.

Unlike the Big Dipper -- or, if you prefer, the plow -- the figure of Bootes is pretty faint. But it does have one brilliant light: Arcturus, the third-brightest star that's visible from most of the United States. It's high in the southeast at nightfall, and shines yellow-orange.

If you can't spot it on its own, the Big Dipper can help. Just follow the curve of the dipper's handle away from its bowl. The first bright star you come to is Arcturus.

The rest of Bootes is harder to see. It forms a pattern that resembles a kite or an ice cream cone, with Arcturus at the bottom of the cone. The rest of it stretches to the left of Arcturus this evening, in the general direction of the Big Dipper -- making it easier for the plowman to grab his celestial plow.

We'll talk about Bootes' second-brightest star tomorrow.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010

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