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Sky watch: Star turn at 1933 Chicago Expo

What a beautiful Chicago evening it was on May 27, 1933. Crowds had begun gathering at the fairground earlier that day, for this was a night they had awaited for many years.

Much as they do today, event organizers had engaged the services of a famous star to throw the switch and open the festivities. And then, as anticipation reached a peak, it was time.

At 9:15 p.m., the long-awaited Century of Progress International Exposition was open. And the star that opened the great exposition reached in from its perch 222 trillion miles above Chicago. Its name was Arcturus.

Arcturus is the fourth-brightest star in our night sky, and the brightest in the constellation Bootes, the herdsman. Look for its yellowish glow this coming week as it rises above the eastern horizon just after dark. You can confirm its location easily by using the handle of the Big Dipper -- in the northeastern sky in the early evening -- to "arc" your way in its direction.

Gaze toward Arcturus and you will see a red giant star some 25 times larger and 180 times more powerful than our sun. It appears so bright because it lies only about 37 light years from Earth.

writes how in ancient times, it was known as the "Watcher" or the "Guardian"; the Arabs knew it by "the Lance-Bearer" and "the Keeper of Heaven." Today, we use a name that comes from the ancient Greek word Arktouros meaning "Bear Guard."

Arcturus was the first star ever seen in daylight with a telescope. That was in 1635, but today, one can do this rather easily with even a modest backyard instrument.

But on May 27, 1933, all eyes in Chicago were on this star after dark. That night, astronomers at the nearby Yerkes Observatory aimed the refracting telescope in its direction to capture its light and focus it onto photoelectric cells and transmitted the electrical current it generated to flip the switch that illuminated the exposition.

So of all the stars in all the heavens, why did exposition officials choose Arcturus? Because at the time, the star was believed to lie 40 light years from Earth and that its light on that night would have left the star in 1893 -- the year of Chicago's previous great world exposition.


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