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Western Slope Skies - Pondering Pegasus

Pegasus as envisioned by Stellarium

Have you ever dreamed of flight? The constellation Pegasus has long been a symbol of courage and aerial daring for humans past and present. Late fall in a dark location offers perfect viewing of this winged horse.

Look high into the stars of the southern sky for what looks like an open square. This is the Great Square of Pegasus, currently flying above Jupiter. In Greek art, Pegasus is upside down in the sky, his head angled away from Jupiter toward the west. His hooves paw the sky near the right wing of Cygnus. Pegasus is often drawn with just his head and front legs, the rest half-hidden as he leaps from the ocean.

As with all constellations, various cultures saw these stars differently. Persian astronomer al-Sufi showed Pegasus as a whole horse, right side up and facing east. People in India envisioned the square as a bedstead for the moon, and certain indigenous tribes of Guiana saw a raised barbeque grill.

In Greek stories Pegasus is a playful flying horse, full of fun. Legend tells that his light-hearted prancing once opened a spring called Hippocrene. And that those who drink from this spring receive a talent for poetry. All this frivolity doesn’t mean that Pegasus has never seen danger, however.

In Greek mythology, Pegasus carried a hero named Bellerophon into a dangerous battle with the Chimaera. This monster was a fire-breathing creature with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and the tail of a snake. Pegasus dodged and spun, winged this way and that and skillfully brought his rider into position. Bellerophon then dropped a handful of lead into the beast’s mouth. The lead melted in the next breath of fire and the Chimaera was no more.

Centuries later, during World War II, the image of light blue Bellerophon riding Pegasus against a maroon background became the insignia of British Paratroopers. These soldiers completed many daring combat missions, including the capture of an important bridge over the Caen Canal in Normandy, France. The bridge is now called Pegasus Bridge.

Astronomically, the constellation of Pegasus is home to a handful of deep sky objects. These include a globular cluster of stars, a spiral galaxy, a chain of galaxies and at least twelve stars hosting their own planets. One of these exoplanets is 51 Pegasi b, the first planet outside our own solar system found orbiting a sun-like star. In 2019 astronomers Didier Queloz and Michel Mayor received the Nobel prize in physics for this surprising discovery. They opened the floodgates for many more exoplanet findings. The scientific agility and courage of Queloz and Mayor is surely as noteworthy as that of Pegasus.

Whether you see poetry, courage, discovery or a dream of flight in the stars, you’re right. It’s all there.

Western Slope Skies is produced by the Black Canyon Astronomical Society and KVNF Community Radio. This feature was written and voiced by Alice de Anguera, a park ranger at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.