Centennial Stars
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Utah's Centennial Stars, January 1997

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

One hundred years ago, people in the valleys between the mountains surrounding the Great Salt Lake celebrated as Utah became a state. One hundred years ago light radiated out in all directions from a star, the one that is recognized as Dubhe, marking the tip of the bowl of the Great Dipper in the constellation Ursa Major. Some of that light traveled directly toward the brand new state, but it would take a century for any of the light to reach Earth. Now, at night, if we go outside and turn our eyes toward this star we see light, which left it in 1896.

The name Dubhe is an abbreviated Arabic word referring to the great bear in the sky. This star, located 100 light years away, would be a most appropriate star to be adopted this year as Utah's official state star. It is the brightest of the seven stars that form the most famous figure in the sky, the Big Dipper. The Dipper contains a pair of stars that are called "pointers," and Dubhe is the tip of the pointer directing us to Polaris, the prime navigational star in all the sky. The pioneers coming into Utah probably used these stars to always know directions, and earlier Indian people living in and passing through what would become Utah certainly knew these stars well. At our latitude, about 40.5 degrees north, the Pointer Stars never set, passing high above the North Star at times, and 12 hours later passing below the Pole Star, but not below our horizon. Thus, it is visible, weather permitting, on every night of the year. As an important part of the Dipper, one sees Dubhe many places: on star charts, on the flag of Alaska, and even on the northwest tower of the Mormon Salt Lake Temple where the stars of the Dipper are inscribed. Thus, since the erection of the Temple, Dubhe has already represented a lot of Utah people.

Consider the light that currently comes to us from this star! Since it started traveling toward us from Dubhe when Utah became a state, the steadily arriving beam that we see from night to night, month to month and year to year, can be thought of as unveiling our state's history. The flow of light will not end, so we can let the star be a symbol of the future as well as the past: for the next hundred years, the beam from Dubhe can symbolize our first century of statehood, but the beam that leaves the star now symbolizes our continuing, never-ending development. From this year on, Utah's centennial star can help us remember who we are and what we want to become.

The bowl of the Great Dipper is rising into view north of northeast on January evenings. Since it is low in the sky, you must observe from a place without high trees or buildings off to the northeast. By 9:00 p.m. the entire dipper is high enough above the horizon to be seen if you have an unobstructed view in that direction. If you begin with the star at the end of the Dipper handle, you can count through the three stars forming the handle, the fourth connecting to the bowl, then the two forming the bottom of the bowl, and finally Dubhe, seventh star from the end of the handle, at the very lip of the bowl. Glance along the line formed by the 6th star (Merak, Arabic word referring to the loin of the bear) and Dubhe, about five times the separation of the two stars and you will find Polaris, the North Star. As you look at Dubhe, remember that it is 100 light years away, and think about Utah history.

There is yet another stellar object worthy of consideration as a symbol of the Beehive State, this time a whole collection of stars. One of the most important and best known of Utah's symbols is the beehive, and in the constellation of Cancer, the Crab, there is a dim cluster of stars known to lovers of the sky as the Beehive Cluster.

For much of the world, this cluster is essentially gone from common experience, for one can not see it with naked eye without dark and unpolluted sky. Here in Utah we can see it, even though it is very dim, by getting out of our cities on a fine, dark, clear, night. In mid-January, look to the east about 10:00 p.m., about one-third the way up in the sky. It will be easiest to see, about three-fourths the way up in the south at 1:00 a.m. in January, and by April it will be in this position just after dark. You must be out of city lights to find it, and you must select a night without moonlight to mask such dim features. If you can find the bright stars of Orion, look well above Orion's left shoulder for the pair of bright stars known as the Twins of Gemini. Then look to the lower left of these about two-and-one-half times as far from the Twin stars as the pair of stars are from each other. If the bright star Regulus, in the constellation Leo is up, you will find the cluster roughly between Gemini and Regulus. With eyes alone it will look like a barely visible smear of light, so be sure to take along a pair of binoculars to help you find it. In the binoculars it will appear as a beautiful bunch of stars. Once you find this rich cluster of dim stars with your field glasses, you can learn to locate it with just your eyes.

The Beehive Cluster was one of the first things Galileo observed with his telescope, and it filled him with delight and amazement. It is exquisite through binoculars, as well as with a telescope. When you look at this sprinkling of stars you will probably agree that it is easy to think you are seeing bees of light hovering around a hive. This old cluster is more than 500 light years away: thus the light we see from it now can remind us of natives who were here before Europeans began exploring America.

We could well adopt this beehive in the sky as our symbol for looking outward toward things that might be hard to see. Yet, upon amplification, yield beautiful sources of great energy and exciting objects to be explored in our ever-continuing quest for understanding ourselves in the vast universe. This symbol, composed of a hive of stars, transposes our Beehive symbol to a new and grand cosmic level as our people enter their second century of statehood. We live in a place where we can still see, with our own eyes, the beautiful and dim features of the starry universe that have always inspired the human mind.

Utah has many important symbols from the earth, including a flower, a mineral, a tree, a bird and a beehive. It seems fitting that we should have symbols in the sky as well. Dubhe, our excellent centennial star, can symbolically suggest both direction and history, and the Beehive Cluster can be for us a symbol of industrious desire to explore things that are difficult and remote.

Note: There was a bill before the Utah Legislature this year to officially adopt Dubhe and the Beehive Cluster as Utah state symbols at the time this article was originally written. The bill passed and Dubhe and the Beehive Cluster are now official state symbols.

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