Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Pisces

As first appeared in the August 2010 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

Those who’ve ever been told that “there are more fish in the sea…” should be relieved that we only cast our visual nets to the heavens for stars and galaxies, as this most important of animals throughout history is only represented in the Northern Hemisphere by one pair of gilled swimmers tied at the tails.

The identification of one-half of this constellation as a fish (its other half had originally been a dove) dates back to at least Babylonian times, when a second great Western civilization prospered in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the West of Egypt, home of the first great Western civilization at the Nile Delta. The two civilizations from which most of the astrology (and mythology) that turned into early astronomy was established were founded by key water sources, providing the means for irrigation, transportation, and stable food supplies in the form of fishing, the three key needs of a society that allow for growth and the ability of the few to support the many (as James Burke has considered in Connections and The Day The Universe Changed, the ability of people to NOT need to provide subsistence level support for a society is what promotes scientific growth, cultural evolution, and whatever other types of activities most of us attend to everyday while some small fraction of the U.S. harvests or raises the food that the rest of us consume with hasty abandon). The Greeks eventually solidified the tied-fish representation of Pisces, representing Aphrodite and Eros, tied to one another during their escape from the god Typhon (You can guess how he rolled… In this case, the two were tied so as not to loose one another in the river Euphrates).

This constellation is reasonably large in visual real estate compared to other members of the Zodiac, but is occupied by fairly unremarkable stars, making Pisces one of the less prominent objects in the sky (it is possible you know the location of Pisces by looking below the more pronounced square of Pegasus). Pisces is made pronounced currently by its having caught Jupiter and Uranus at its Southern side, with Jupiter now making its way through Pisces (with a small fraction of time in Cetus) on its way into Aries this time next year. Most all observers will have Jupiter in their scopes at some point this Summer and Fall, giving them a chance to take in a second of the large gas giants in our Solar system as well as one solitary Messier Object within the Pisces boundary while having to move their scopes only slightly.

The only Messier Object within the Pisces boundary is M74, a less-pronounced cousin of the also face-on Whirlpool Galaxy (M51). In Hubble images (below), the bright cloudiness almost shrouds the spiral quality of the galaxy. An infrared image taken with the Spitzer Space Telescope (below) reveals a pronounced web-like quality to this galaxy, as well as some greater definition in the M74 spiral shape.

M74, image from NASA, ESA and the GMOS Commissioning Team.
Infrared image of M74 taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope.

For those attempting to check two planets of their list while memorizing the shape of Pisces, the image below provides you a reasonable cheat-sheet for how to hop from the very prominent (magnitude of -3) Jupiter (“1”) to the markedly less prominent (magnitude 5.75) Uranus (“3”). You’ll note in the image that the four famous Galilean Satellites of Jupiter (Ganymede, Io, Callisto, and Europa) are virtually on top of one another at this “magnification,” giving you an idea of how far the motion will be to find Uranus in your eyepiece. From among the many (invisible) other moons of Jupiter (all of the labels in this image are just a fraction of the total count to date), you’ll note a 6th magnitude star at position “2”, the brightest other object in the sky in this area. A slow, cautious scope motion to your south-east (and low magnification to start) will help you capture a view of this small blue-ish globe, a fitting color to search for within this aquatic constellation.

Finding Uranus starting at Jupiter. Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

Clear skies, Damian

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