When you think about it, it’s really not too surprising that a star in the constellation Cetus should sport a whale of name.
But what, you ask, might that name mean?
How about “Part of a Hand”? That refers to the circlet of stars that outlines the whale’s head, which at one time was considered to be a hand of outstretched fingers. The name has also been used as a designation for Alpha (α ) Ceti, which now goes by the more easily pronounced moniker of Menkar — considerably less tongue-twisting than Kaffaljidhma at least. And as Jim Kaler points out, there’s a longer version of the name, too: Al Kaff al Jidmah, which gets translated as “the cut-short hand” in some internet sources (such as Wikipedia), or as “the maimed hand” by Admiral Smyth (p. 68 of The Bedford Catalog). Beware — there may well be a lesson there with regard to breaking up a long word into a string of smaller words.
If it was up to me, however, I would be tempted to call it the Devil Star, because my experience has been it’s a devil of a star to split. That’s primarily due to it being located far enough south in my ocean influenced skies to be bedeviled by poor seeing and murk-ifying oceanic vapors. I’ve turned a telescope to Gamma (γ) on numerous occasions, and have always been met by a single shimmering star that refuses to surrender the first hint of duplicity. More than once I’ve given up that tusk-infested tussle and taken my chances on the equally elusive spiral beauty of M77 and it’s illustrious companion, NGC 1055, and always with better luck.
Neil English recently wrote about his experience with Gamma (γ), and wasn’t having any more luck with it than I’ve had – until he decided to outsmart it by waiting for it to stride across the celestial meridian. It worked for him, so I gave it a try in hopes it would prove to be the celestial secret to prying Kaffaljidhma’s fingers far enough apart to catch sight of the secondary.
Gamma (γ) Ceti (Σ 299) (Kaffaljidhma)
HIP: 12706 SAO: 110707
. Magnitudes Separation Position Angle WDS
STF299 AB: 3.5, 6.2 2.30” 298° 2008
ADL 124 AC: 3.5, 10.2 843.10” 306° 2000
Distance: 82 Light Years
Spectral Classification: “A” is A3, “B” is F3, and “C” is K5
It now seems like a whisper from the remote past, but it was a mere three months ago that I set sail for Gamma (γ) Ceti once more, back in that barely remembered era of sparkling clear nights which seem like such a nebulous dream now, and have me crying out many a rainy morning from my tortured 4-AM sleep: “It’s a split!”
Five days after sailing so innocently into those early October skies, the November rains arrived prematurely (October 15th at 11:28 AM to be exact) – and most of the following three months were drowned in a deluge of 49.75 inches of rain. I’m looking at real estate now that is worry-free of runoff concerns and doesn’t require a boat dock beside the garage.
But prior to that, my only major worry was whether I could penetrate that whale of an obscuring cloud which seemed to surround Gamma (γ) Ceti. I’ve since come to the conclusion that part of the reason – maybe the main reason – for the difficulty I’ve had with this star is the dim nature of the entire constellation it calls home. Cetus is not the brightest arbitrary conglomeration of stars in the autumn skies, which means it’s easy to ignore, which I’ve done repeatedly. I’ve almost conjured up enough interest a couple of times to begin a serious exploration of the Cetian confines, but more thrilling sights – like Lacerta – have always whisked me away. So I suspect Cetus thinks I don’t care for it, and has decided to be difficult.
Difficult it certainly was on that October 10th evening when I returned to it for another dubious attempt at detecting Gamma’s duplicity. I was almost conditioned to expect failure, which is not the best state of mind in which to attempt a difficult feat of stellar legerdemain. Even when I made my six inch f/8 Celestron refractor aware of what we were going to attempt, it looked at me as if to say: “Not THIS again – don’t you ever learn?” I tried, but I just couldn’t look it straight in the lens.
And sure enough, on first approach, I found myself confronted with that same old single yellow-white stellar orb of sparkling starlight. I knew it well. As I attempt to recall that distant night now, it seems the six inch refractor was armed with a 12mm Radian (100x) for that first view. I remember thinking (always a dangerous thing to do in the dark) ——- hmmmmm, what should I try next ——- when I heard a metallic voice echoing and rumbling in the dark depths of C’s starlight saturated aluminum cylinder:
“Look, why don’t you give up the thinking stuff, go in the house and get that little 9mm UO Ortho you rarely let out of the box, bring it out here, and give it to me. It’s about time we terminated this torture.”
Now I’ve never been one of those people who allows a talking telescope to tell them what to do, but I could see some merit in the idea. So I obediently followed C’s instructions, dug the diminutive chrome devil out of its faded green box, removed it from the plastic wrapper, pulled off the end caps, tossed it up in the air and watched it do two somersaults in celebration of it’s out-of-the-box freedom, caught it, went back outside, and handed it to C.
“Merci,” it said. “Now how ’bout standing back for a minute and give me some room to work.”
I watched as the focuser twitched a couple of times, then crept its way forward toward the front of the tube, twitched a couple of more times, slipped backwards a few infinitesimal millimeters, twitched again —– and then I heard a grunt, followed by that hollow rumbling metallic voice:
“Have a peek.”
And heavens to Hamal if that secondary wasn’t lookin’ right back at me.
It was welded to the primary so tightly I quickly developed doubts about prying it loose. I had this fleeting vision of forcing the two stars apart and suddenly seeing the secondary dart off into interstellar space, never to be seen again. That would have been hard to live with.
“Whadda ya think, C?”, I said.
So I left it where it was, content to stare at it for a full fifteen minutes. After so many failures, it was quite a sight. Even though the two stars were attached, the circular orb of the secondary was very distinct. I allowed that insistent urge to pry it loose to whither and run off of me, much like the rain would do five days later. But it sure was tempting.
This is another one of those stars that mystifies the observer with a variety of colors. The spectral classifications of the primary and the secondary lead you to expect blue and white light only, but a flash of yellow consistently creeps into the view. Haas describes them as a “whitish banana yellow and a pale opal green” – although I sure didn’t see the green — and Admiral Smyth saw “pale yellow” in the primary and “lucid blue” in the secondary. Maybe if I had pried the secondary loose, the blue would have been more obvious — but I just could never bring myself to do it.
After my fifteen minutes or so of Cetacean serenity, I uncoiled from my seated position, stretched my cramped frame back into its usual stretched-out state, walked around the deck a few times, chanted Kaffaljidhma very fast until my tongue tripped over the syllables – which was almost immediately – and then I remembered I hadn’t thanked that long black aluminum six inch refractor for its help.
I walked back over to it, reached down, and patted C on the rear of its tube, just above the focuser. It trembled a bit, then relaxed, and sighed, “Ahhhh —— love it when you do that.”