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Celestial Twins

Gemini the Twins is one of the brightest of the 66 constellations that we see through the course of the year around here, and it’s easy to find in my favorite part of the sky with “Orion and his gang”. Just look for the famous constellation Orion the Hunter in the southern sky as soon as it’s dark enough in the evening. You can’t miss it! It’s the one that looks like a giant hourglass with the three bright stars in a perfect row that make Orion’s belt.

Look for two identically bright stars close together to the upper left of Orion. These are the stars Castor and Pollux that mark the heads of the constellation twins Castor and Pollux. Unless you’re looking from an area of heavy city lighting, you should see two faint parallel lines of stars to the lower right of the stars Castor and Pollux. Those are the bodies of the twins that remind me of stickmen, kind of the way I draw people. The feet of Castor and Pollux are not that far away from Betelgeuse, the star that marks Orion’s armpit.

Slowly scan the constellation Gemini the Twins with binoculars or a telescope and you’ll see some nice star clusters, groups of young stars that were born out of the same giant gas cloud. An especially nice open cluster of youthful stars is called Messier Object 35, or M35 for short. It’s off the foot of Castor and it’s wonderful. The brightest stars in Gemini, Castor and Pollux have quite a story all by themselves. Pollux is a giant star, more than eight million miles in diameter. That’s nine times the diameter of our sun. It’s also forty times more luminous than our sun and sports a surface temperature of almost 8000 degrees F, which is a little cooler than our home star.

Gazing at the star Castor proves that heavenly looks can be really deceiving. A moderate telescope reveals that Castor is a beautiful double star, but a larger telescope reveals that what appears to be a single star to the naked eye is actually a collection of six stars all revolving around each other in an intricate cosmic ballet. Can you imagine living on a planet going around one of those stars? You’d have six sunrises and six sunsets every day!

According to Greek mythology Castor and Pollux were the twin sons of Leda, the queen of Sparta. The twins, though, had two different fathers. Castor was the son of Leda’s husband, King Tyndarus, but Pollux’s dad is Zeus, the king of the gods. What can I say? Leda had quite a night! Greek mythology stories are full of this kind of behavior.

Anyway, the result was that Castor was born mortal and Pollux came into this world as half god because of his father. The twins grew up together in the castle and had the finest of everything; great education, great fun, and very few bad days. They were the best of friends as well as brothers. They hung out together all the time, even after they grew up. Castor became one of the finest horsemen in the land and Pollux became a championship boxer.

Life was hunky dory for Castor and Pollux until the night they stopped in a bar to catch some cool music and met a couple of beautiful sisters. The brothers bought them drinks and danced with them and everything was setting up for a wonderful night….until the boyfriends of the sisters arrived at the bar. Castor and Pollux were in big trouble! These were big guys who took great exception to their girlfriends being hustled by these strangers and a fight broke out. Back in those days scores were settled with sword fights outside the bar. Castor and Pollux gave these two local boys a real fight and ended up slaying them. Castor, though, took a sword in his side that didn’t seem too serious at first but quickly became infected. It turned out to be a mortal wound and Pollux lost his brother and best friend.

Castor went off to the underworld and Pollux missed him like crazy. He longed for the day that he could join his brother again but that was impossible since Pollux was godly and therefore immortal. He would never be allowed to see his brother again. Pollux begged and begged his father Zeus to do something so he could see his best friend again. Finally Zeus allowed Pollux to spend half of each day with Castor in the underworld and half the day in this world. It wasn’t like the old days but it was better than nothing.

The love these two twins had for each other is celebrated in the skies every night, and over the years the constellation Gemini the Twins became a good luck charm to sailors and travelers.