Before I spend any time talking about the big, dark constellation of Pisces, I want to mention a couple items of interest involving the planets. If you missed the great conjunction of Venus and Jupiter this week (I did – rainy and cloudy), don’t worry, as there’s always something new going on. In the mornings, Jupiter is continuing to rise, as Venus is slipping behind the Sun. In the evenings, Saturn is slipping into the Sun’s glare and will soon be gone from view – but for the next few days, look for Saturn, a very thin crescent Moon, and Mercury to form a pretty grouping just after sunset. Mercury is not always easy to find, but Saturn is now close enough to provide a handhold to it. You just have to be quick enough to catch it right after sunset, but before it sets, itself. Look for it on the 20th or the 21st, when the Moon will be adding to the show. (Note: Stellarium doesn’t capture lunar phases in this view – but trust me, it will actually be a crescent!)
Just for fun, here’s what a little imagination reveals for you. If you could view this scene from orbit (away from Earth’s surface), or you could somehow see all these planets laid out around the Sun during the daytime (like during an eclipse), here’s the grouping you’d see. Everything in this image except the Moon is beyond the Sun, with Mercury coming toward us, Venus running away, and the Earth catching up to Jupiter and Saturn and continuing to push them left-to-right. Pretty cool. Oh, and by the way – Mars is also in this mix, out to the right past Jupiter, and we’re catching back up to it too.
By Dec 1, Saturn and Mercury will be in close alignment, but very close to the Sun. Venus and Saturn will eventually cross paths too – their alignment will happen on Christmas Day (12/25) – but they will also be aligned so closely with the Sun, and behind it, as to be completely lost in its glare.
OK, so…. Pisces! I’ve been slowly working us around the sky and talking some about each Zodiac constellation as it gets ready to cross the meridian (North-South line) in the evening sky. Pisces, “The Fishes”, is crossing it now. As I’ve mentioned before, is a dark constellation, seemingly buried in the dark part of the sky dominated by sea creatures. It sits between Aquarius to the west, and Aries to the east, and is most easily found by looking for either Aries, or the square of Pegasus, and looking at the dark area to the southwest.
As a zodiac constellation, Pisces straddles the ecliptic, the plane of our solar system, and so the Sun and Planets visit it often. Uranus is currently hanging out in the “V” formed by the ropes holding Pisces’ fish together.
This constellation originated with the Babylonians, but the story we’re most familiar with is that of the Greeks and Romans. After the battle between the Gods and Titans, the monster Tyhpon was set loose on the world. Aphrodite and Eros tied a rope between them, so as to avoid getting separated, and jumped in the river to escape the monster, where they turned into fishes connected by a cord. The Roman version is essentially the same, with different names – Venus and Cupid became the fishes.
In a very dark, clear sky, you may be able to make out the Circlet asterism – a ring of stars just south of Pegasus that marks one of the fish (the west one). The other fish is more triangular, and for a time it was proposed that this actually be a separate constellation, Testudo, the Turtle. That didn’t stick, but it’s still called Testudo, just to confuse us.
The intersection of the ecliptic and the equator occurs in western Pisces. What this means practically is that the Sun, travelling along the ecliptic from our point of view, will cross the equator in Pisces – This point marks the Sun’s location at the Vernal Equinox, as the Northern Hemisphere leaves winter behind and enters spring.
Knowing that little tidbit, it’s a pretty simple exercise to look at tonight’s sky and note the relative distance between Pisces and the Sun. You can even count Zodiac constellations as you move west (Aquarius, Capricornus, Sagittarius, Scorpius…) and see, via the stars, that Spring is a long way off!
Get Out There