Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the winter holiday season for many of us. We’re now entering the weeks when we experience the year’s earliest sunsets and nightfall seems to come well before we’re ready to end our day. It is a time of great seasonal shifts in both the climate and the sky ….
The yellow-hued star Capella is nearing the meridian at this time, and its passage is entirely appropriate for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. Capella is one of the few bright stars whose name does not have Arabic origins. It derives from the Latin word for a female goat, and if you have keen eyes or a pair of binoculars you can see a small triangle of stars tucked close to the bright yellow beacon. These stars form an asterism known as “The Kids”. In Roman mythology Capella represented a she-goat named Amalthea which suckled the infant Jupiter. The young god, evidently a rambunctious little boy, accidentally snapped off one of Amalthea’s horns, which became the “Cornucopia”, or “Horn of Plenty”. In turn the Cornucopia has become associated with our observance of Thanksgiving and the feasting that goes along with it. Amalthea has been recognized by giving her name to the fifth moon of Jupiter, discovered by the American astronomer Edward Emerson Barnard in 1892 on his first night of observing with the then-new 36-inch refracting telescope at Lick Observatory, the largest in the world at the time. This was the last moon in the solar system to be found visually. Thanks to Earth-based and spacecraft photography we now know that Jupiter has some 64 moons!