One of the great winter constellations is Gemini. Located just a bit north and east from Orion, it leads with the bright, mellow orange star, Pollux. Alongside, bluer, and not as dominant, is his brother Castor. Another eight stars help to give Gemini its shape. Various cultures have provided different names for this grouping, but it appears that virtually everyone has agreed that, as a whole, there is no other way to see the relative alignment of these stars than as a set of twins standing side by side. Pollux is approximately 34 light years away, while Castor is more distant, at nearly 51 light years from Earth.
Gemini is one of the twelve signs of the zodiac. The apparent path of the sun across the sky determines which of the 88 recognized constellations are given astrological importance. In this case, the sun “passes” through Gemini from the end of May to the end of June. It then makes sense that the sun would be opposite Gemini in the winter, making it easiest to observe in late December through January. Of course, it is the Earth’s revolution around the sun, and not the sun’s movement, that creates the changing view.
There are a handful of deep sky objects within Gemini, with Messier 35 being the brightest. Containing hundreds of relatively young stars, this open cluster is found far beyond the famous twins, about 2,800 light years from our backyard perch. Open clusters differ from their globular cousins in that their individual stars are much easier to discern. Astronomers say that these clusters, as well as clouds of gas, or nebulae, are part of a constellation only because, from our line of sight, they seem to fall within its visual boundaries. Castor and Pollux are not similar, nor close to one another. Messier 35 is even less connected. Yet, together, they give us Gemini. Distance is the great equalizer, the means by which differences are cast aside for the sake of the whole.
This month, specifically around the 13th and 14th, Gemini plays host to an annual meteor shower. At this time of year, every year, the earth passes through a debris field left by an asteroid, 3200 Phaethon. This relatively small space rock is about 3.5 miles wide and hustles along at some 45,000 mph. As it makes a close pass by the sun, loose particles on its surface break away. Though they cause no damage to us, these tiny bits of dust give us a wondrous show of streaking lights. Since the meteors appear to originate in and around Gemini, we treat them as if somehow, they too are a part of the Twins.
Size, color, and age have no say in the categorizing and naming of the denizens of the sky. We look up, see a shape that reminds us of something, and we feel free to give birth to an otherworldly version of what we may have seen near our homes or what we may have heard about a hero or heroine whose tale has been passed down orally through the ages. Though totally unrelated, a bunch of wildly different stars can become the Big Bear or the strong man Hercules. For constellations, differences among the stars are cast aside; the broader view is more important than any of its parts.
As is frequently the case for me, I wonder why one set of rules applies to the sky while another seems to apply to life on our planet. From afar we’re all Arizonans, or Americans. But, up close, we all too often focus on what separates us. It’s a damn shame. If only we were better able to recognize that widening our field of view, that stepping back a bit to see ourselves from a distance could very well serve to give us a greater acceptance of each other. If only we saw in ourselves what we see in Gemini, a village, where all are welcomed.