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June 10, 2024

Backyard Astronomy: Wade in the Water (2003-09-01)

By Cheryl Haimann

The Mars hoopla is dying down in the media, but Mars is still out there blazing away. Let's look at the neighborhood where the red planet is hanging out. Since Mars, like all of the objects in our solar system, is on the ecliptic, the constellations near it are zodiacal ones. It's lucky for them they are in the zodiac, because otherwise no one would even notice they are there. If the Milky Way is the bustling city center of the night sky, then the region to the east is the quiet suburban bedroom community.

Mars is in Aquarius, the Water Bearer. This constellation recognizes the importance of water to the Babylonians and Egyptians. The Egyptians considered the Water Bearer to be the source of the Nile. The Romans thought it might be Zeus pouring out the waters of life on the earth. Even the Chinese associated the constellation with water, perhaps because its appearance in the sky corresponded with the rainy season. Aquarius is also associated with the ancient stories of the great flood.

The drawingTo find Aquarius, look for Mars, and then refer to the drawing. It does not have any particularly bright stars or an easily identifiable shape. Since it is still fairly low in the sky, it can be a challenge from northern or city locations. If you have a clear southern view, you may see that Aquarius seems to be pouring water onto Piscis Austrinus (PIE-sis OSS-trin-us), the Southern Fish. This constellation has the advantage of having the only bright star in the area, Fomalhaut (FOAM-a-lot), which is a near neighbor to us at only 22 light years away.

To the west, between Aquarius and Sagittarius, is Capricornus, the Sea Goat. (Note that as with Scorpius, the name of the constellation is different from the zodiac sign.) What in the name of Jupiter is a sea goat, you may ask. When the monster Typhon showed up intent on laying waste to the gods, many of them took other forms in order to escape. The piper Pan often went about as a goat, but he jumped into the river intending to become a fish. Through some unfortunate miscalculation, only his lower half became a fish. Still, he managed to scare Typhon away with a screaming toot on his pipes, and thus saved the day for all the gods.

This constellation doesn't look anything like a fish or a goat. It does look sort of like a Stealth fighter or a fat boomerang. The star at the leftmost point of the V is Deneb Algedi, the tail of the goat. This, of course, makes no sense, since we have already established that the tail of this creature is a fish.

Deneb Algedi will, however, help you find one other watery constellation. About midway along a line from Debeb Algedi to Lyra, and not far from Altair, is tiny Delphinus, the Dolphin. Delphinus (del-FIE-nus) was awarded his place in the heavens for helping Neptune win the love of a mermaid. This constellation looks like a kite with a tail. The four stars of the body fit nicely into the field of view of standard 7x50 or 8x50 binoculars.
Article © Cheryl Haimann. All rights reserved.
Published on 2003-09-01
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