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Astronomy: The Celestial Royal Family

4-22-11 Cassiopeia and Cepheus Torsten Bronger
Queen Cassiopeia and King Cepheus near the North Star. Credit: Torsten Bronger

In honor of the upcoming royal wedding, we're honoring the monarchy that reigns among the constellations high in the northern sky.

Cepheus the King and Cassiopeia the Queen are north circumpolar constellations, meaning they are positioned close to the North Star and never set below the horizon for northern observers. Their daughter, the Princess Andromeda, is located next to the King and Queen but a bit farther from Polaris, making it best seen in the fall months.

Cassiopeia is an easy constellation to find, because it looks like a letter W or M depending on the time of year. This weekend, Cassiopeia is very low in the north with its points facing down, looking like a W. The image of Cassiopeia as a Queen appears when you think of the W as being a chair that the Queen is sitting on.

Cepheus is just to Cassiopeia's right, or northeast of the Queen. I always think of Cepheus as resembling a house, the kind children draw with a square for the base and a triangle for the roof. In Greek mythology, Cepheus and Cassiopeia were the King and Queen of Ethiopia. Queen Cassiopeia thought herself very beautiful, even more beautiful than the sea nymphs known as the Nereids. The God of the Sea, Poseidon, chose to punish Ethiopia for Cassiopeia's vanity by ravaging the coast with a sea monster. To get the sea monster to leave their land alone, the King and Queen chained their daughter, Andromeda, to a rock in the water as an offering to the sea monster. But Andromeda was saved by Perseus, who is also a constellation that can be found on the opposite side of Cassiopeia from Cepheus.

The story of Cepheus and Cassiopeia is not a pretty one, but at least it has a happy ending when Andromeda marries her hero, Perseus. So, on that happy note, best wishes to William and Kate and may they make their own happy ending.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She is currently the Feature Writer for Astronomy and Space at Suite101.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

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