Courtesy of EarthSky
A Clear Voice for Science
Menkar is the brightest star in Cetus. It has located about 220 light-years away. Menkar resides in the Head of the Whale, which is shaped like a lopsided pentagon and which is generally the easiest part of Cetus to identify.
Deneb Kaitos is in the Tail of the Whale. When you see the word “deneb” in star names, it nearly always means “tail.”
More often than not, you will not see the other star marked on today’s chart with the eye alone. It is a variable star, Omicron Ceti, whose proper name is Mira. Mira is one of the most famous of all variable stars. The brightness of this star varies over a period of about 11 months. Long ago, early stargazers must have looked at the pattern of stars we know as Cetus and noted the location of a star that was sometimes visible … and sometimes not. That is probably how Mira came to be called “The Wonderful.”
Is Mira the Wonderful visible now? Yes, it is now shining at about 3rd-magnitude brightness. It reached its peak brightness in late November 2009 and another brightness maximum is predicted for late October 2010. Although this star’s variable character is not altogether predictable, it is usually bright enough to see with the unaided eye for a month or so before and after its peak brightness. Come to know the constellation Cetus now, and watch for Mira starting now. On one of these dark autumn nights, you just might see Mira the Wonderful pop into view!
By the way, in mid-2007 Mira was discovered to have an amazing comet-like tail! This trail of blue cast across the heavens – discovered by astronomers using a space telescope – it is actually hot gas thrown off by Mira. Read more about it here.
Written by EarthSky