Jimmy Westlake: Go fishing for Pisces this month
November 9, 2015
The patch of the sky that appears overhead about 8 p.m. in early November is informally known as the "Celestial Sea." That's because it is home to all sorts of watery constellations, including the Dolphin, the Sea Goat, the Whale, the River, the Water Carrier and the Southern Fish, just to name a few.
This section of the heavens earned its watery reputation because the sun makes its annual pilgrimage through this part of the sky during the wet months of spring when April showers and the winter snow melt cause the rivers to swell.
Right in the middle of this Celestial Sea is the zodiacal constellation of Pisces, the Fish. Tucked in just beneath the constellations of Pegasus and Andromeda, this pair of fish represents the mythological characters of Venus and her son Cupid.
According to the ancient legend, Venus and Cupid were strolling along the banks of the Euphrates River one day when the fire-monster Typhon appeared. Typhon was at war with the gods of Olympus and was attempting to seize control of the universe from Jupiter. In order to escape Typhon, the gods and goddesses disguised themselves as various animals.
On this occasion, Venus and Cupid transformed themselves into fish and dove into the river where the fire-breathing Typhon could not follow. They tied themselves tail to tail with a ribbon so the swift currents would not separate them. Minerva later immortalized these fish in the sky as our constellation of Pisces.
While Pisces has no bright, flashy stars, it is nonetheless easy to spot because of its distinctive pattern. Just below of the Great Square of Pegasus you'll find a small oval formed by seven stars, nicknamed "The Circlet." This pattern represents Venus, in the form of a fish.
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A faint string of stars, representing a ribbon, trails off behind the Circlet toward the east and to Pisces' alpha star named Alrischa, meaning "the Knot." Another stream of faint stars extends northward from Alrischa to a triangle of stars on the eastern side of the Great Square and represents the second fish, Cupid.
Pisces is a very large star pattern, ranking 14th out of the 88 official constellations. According to earthsky.org, the sun moves across the stars of Pisces from March 12 to April 19 each year.
Pisces is home to an important crossroad of the sky. This is where the equator of the sky (the Celestial Equator) and the annual path of the sun (the Ecliptic) cross each other on the first day of spring each year. The moment that the sun reaches this point, called the Vernal Equinox, the season of spring begins in the northern hemisphere.
In 2016, this will happen at 9:31 p.m. Colorado time on March 19. Of course, when this occurs, the stars of Pisces will be hidden behind the sun in our daytime sky and we can't see them, so step outside this month to catch a glimpse of this delightfully fishy constellation.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out Jimmy's astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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