Finding Watery Constellations
Last updated 9/23/2021 at 10:39am
After the drenching that parts of our nation have experienced recently, I almost hesitate to bring this up, but of the 88 constellations that fill our night sky, 15 are somehow associated with water.
Of those 15, several appear in our southeastern sky during late nights this week. To see them, however, you'll need to retreat to a rural area far from city lights.
One of the largest and most famous of these is the zodiacal constellation of Aquarius. Look for this relatively faint star grouping midway up in the southern sky between 11 p.m. and midnight.
Aquarius forms a pattern that we know today as the "Water Bearer" or "water jar," though sky watchers often depict it as a standing man, pouring liquid from a jar. Try to trace either of those forms in the sky, however, and your hair will turn as white as mine.
The figure of Aquarius first appeared on ancient Babylonian stones, but it seems to have represented water in many ancient cultures including Persia, Israel, Syria, Turkey and Arabia. Ancient Egyptians, for example, knew it as Monius who filled his giant urn by descending into the Nile, causing the river to flood each June around the time Aquarius was in their midnight sky.
Of course, one would expect that where there's water, there's fish, and sure enough that's true in the heavens as well. A quick glance to the east of Aquarius reveals the constellation of Pisces, the fishes, supposedly tied together with rope.
More precisely, it should be called the northern fishes because there's also a constellation of the southern fishes (Piscis Austrinus) just south of Aquarius. If you thought it was tough to outline the namesake of the northern fishes, get ready for some fun here! Fortunately, a bright star named Fomalhaut marks this star grouping and makes it much easier to find.
Just below Pisces swims one of the largest creatures in the sea: Cetus, the sea monster, or whale. Cetus is said to be the beast that Poseidon sent to torture the king Cepheus and his daughter Andromeda when the queen Cassiopeia claimed to rival the Nereids in beauty. It was placed in the heavens to commemorate its heroic deed, and with some imagination, one might even imagine the whale's huge body and its tail and fluke stretching toward the east.
Pay attention to the nighttime sky throughout the year and you'll discover many more of these watery constellations: Delphinus, the dolphin; Dorado, the swordfish; Eridanus, the river; Carina, the ship's keel; Hydra and Hydrus, the water snakes; Vela, the sails and others. Stargazers in our planet's Northern Hemisphere can see some of these in their entirety – others only partially – but if you travel southward, you will see them all. All have rich histories that date back centuries or millennia, and their stories are fascinating to learn as we seek them out.
This week is a great time to get out under a dark sky to begin your search. Without significant moonlight during evening hours, you'll have a wonderful time seeking these aquatic constellations. Who knows, perhaps you'll even create a few of your own!
Visit Dennis Mammana at dennismammana.com.