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| Constellations on Oct 08, 2013

Aquarius? Here’s your constellation

The constellation Aquarius the Water Bearer is best seen in the evening sky during a Northern Hemisphere autumn or Southern Hemisphere spring.

Aquarius the Water Bearer is a constellation of the Zodiac, which means the sun, moon and planets all occasionally or regularly pass within its boundaries. It’s a big constellation and has long been associated with water. This constellation has no particularly bright stars, and you will need a dark sky to pick it out.

Aquarius is located in a region of the sky sometimes called the Sea. This part of the sky looks dark and deep, but of course there are stars here, as there are everywhere on the heavenly globe. The stars in this part of the sky tend to be faint. With the exception of the star Fomalhaut, which we’ll talk more about later, in our western sky lore we tend to associate these star patterns with water. It’s here we find Cetus the Whale, Pisces the Fish, Eridanus the River and Piscis Austrinus the Southern Fish.

1948 night sky star map showing the constellations of the ancient Sea imagined by the ancients in this part of the sky. The constellations here tend to be associated with water. This star map is available via etsy.com

How to see the constellation Aquarius. Aquarius the Water Bearer is best seen in the evening sky during a Northern Hemisphere autumn or Southern Hemisphere spring. Aquarius appears in the southern sky as seen from northerly latitudes. South of the equator, it’s found overhead or high in the northern sky. From either the Northern or Southern Hemisphere, you’ll see Aquarius highest in the sky in early October around 10 p.m. local time (11 p.m. local daylight saving time), or one month later – in early November – around 8 p.m. local time (9 p.m. local daylight saving time).

If you know other constellations already, look for Aquarius to the northeast of the constellation Capricornus and to the southwest of the constellation Pisces.

The constellation Aquarius. Image credit: Old Book Art Image Gallery

In our western sky lore, Aquarius is usually portrayed as a man pouring a stream of water upon the star Fomalhaut, brightest star in the constellation Piscis Austrinus the Southern Fish, as if trying to douse the only bright star in this region of sky. Fomalhaut is the only bright star visible in the celestial Sea. That’s why astronomers often call Fomalhaut the Loneliest Star.

From the Northern Hemisphere, you’ll find Aquarius in the south on autumn evenings. The bright star Fomalhaut – only bright star in this region of the sky – is below it. In a dark sky, you can see a zig-zag stream of stars running from Aquarius to Fomalhaut. It is said to represent water from the Water Jar of Aquarius flowing into the open mouth of Piscis Austrinus the Southern Fish. In October 2010, Jupiter was at the border of the constellations Pisces and Aquarius. Presently, in June 2013, Jupiter shines near the border of the constellations Taurus and Gemini.

Another way to see the constellation Aquarius. Notice the bright star Fomalhaut below it. Image via AlltheSky

The Water Jar in Aquarius. Fomalhaut lies to the south of the constellation Aquarius the Water-Bearer. If your sky is dark enough, you can see a little asterism – or noticeable pattern of stars within Aquarius – marked in pink on our chart, just to the left of the star Sadal Melik. This little pattern is called the Water Jar in Aquarius. Some 30 faint stars, visible in very dark skies, make a zigzag stream of stars, flowing down toward the star Fomalhaut.

Again, you need a very dark sky to see this. We didn’t try to reproduce this zigzag line of stars here, but, in a dark sky, it is very noticeable. This zigzag line of stars represents water from the Water Jar of Aquarius, flowing into the open mouth of Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish.

Aquarius in history and star lore

This ancient constellation has been associated with water throughout the Old World. But whether the abundance of water was regarded as a blessing or a curse seems to depend upon geography.

Greek mythology associates Aquarius with the deluge that wiped out all of humanity except for Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha. Zeus, the king of the gods, unleashed the flood to punish people for their misdeeds, and advised the virtuous Deucalion to save himself by building an ark. This tale of divine retribution strongly parallels the story of the great flood in the Old Testament.

In ancient Egypt, the constellation Aquarius represented Hapi, the god of the Nile River. This benevolent god distributed the waters of life, and the urn symbolized a fount of good fortune. It’s this association that explains why the Water Bearer is often seen holding the Norma Nilotica – a rod for measuring the depth of the Nile River. Also, the names of Aquarius’ two brightest stars – Sadalmelik and Sadalsuud – reaffirm the idea of providence. The names are thought to mean lucky one of the king and luckiest of the lucky.

Dates of sun’s passage through Aquarius

As seen from Earth, the sun in 2014 passes in front of the constellation Aquarius from February 16 to March 12. It is important to note that these dates are in reference to the constellation – not the sign – Aquarius. The sun is in the sign Aquarius from about January 20 to February 18.

Sky chart of the constellation Aquarius

The constellation Aquarius to the northeast of the constellation Capricornus and the southwest of the “Square of Pegasus” Click here for a larger chart

Bottom line: This post talks about the astronomical constellation Aquarius the Water Bearer. It explains how to find the constellation, points out its famous Water Jar asterism, and tells a few stories about it from the ancient myths.

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