Zodiac Signs and Their Dates

Did you know that there are 88 constellations in the night sky? Over the course of several thousand years, human beings have cataloged and named them all. But only 12 of them are particularly famous and continue to play an active role in our astrological systems. These are known as the zodiac signs, 12 constellations that correspond to the different months of the year.

Each of these occupies a sector of the sky which makes up 30° of the ecliptic, starting at the vernal equinox – one of the intersections of the ecliptic with the celestial equator. The order of these astrological signs is Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces. Here are all the zodiac signs and their dates. If your birthday falls within one of those date ranges, that’s your zodiac sign.

Granted, modern science has shown astrology to be an ancient fallacy, a way of connecting patterns in celestial movements to events and behaviors here on Earth. But for ancient people, such patterns were necessary given the fact that they lacked an understanding of human psychology, astronomy, and that Earth was not the center of the universe.

The concept of the zodiac originated in Babylon in the 2nd millennium BCE, and was later influenced by Hellenistic (Ancient Greek), Roman, and Egyptian culture. This resulted in a mix of traditions, where the 12 zodiac symbols were associated with the 12 Houses – different fields of experience associated with the various planets – and the four classical elements (Earth, Wind, Water and Fire).

The symbols of the zodiac. Credit: what-is-astrology.com

In essence, astrology maintains that celestial phenomena are related to human activity, so the signs are held to represent certain characteristics of behavior and personality traits. What we know today as astrology comes from the 2nd century AD, as it was formally described by Ptolemy in his work, Tetrabiblos.

This book was responsible for the spread of astrology’s as we know it across Europe and the Middle East during the time of the Roman Empire. These traditions have remained relatively unchanged for over seventeen centuries, though some alterations have been made due to the subsequent discoveries of the other planets in our Solar System.

Naturally, the birth of the modern psychology, biology and astronomy has completely discredited the notion that our personalities are determined by birth signs, the position of the stars or the planets. Given what we know today of the actual elements, the movements of the planets, and the forces that govern the universe, astrology is now known for being little more than superstition.

What’s more, the dates of the ‘star signs’ were assigned over 2,000 years ago, when the zodiac was first devised. At that time, astronomers believed that the Earth’s position was fixed in the universe, and did not understand that the Earth is subject to precession – where Earth’s rotational and orbital parameters slowly change with time. As such, the zodiac signs no longer correspond to constellations of stars that appear in night sky.

The constellations Ophiuchus. Credit:
The constellations Ophiuchus, represented as a man grasping a snake. Credit: chandra.harvard.edu

And last, but certainly not least, there is the issue of the missing 13th sign, which corresponds to the constellation Ophiuchus. Over 2000 years ago, this constellation was deliberately left out, though the Sun clearly passes in front of it after passing in front of Scorpius (aka. Scorpio) and before reaching Sagittarius.

It is unclear why ancient astrologers would do this, but it is a safe bet that they wanted to divide the 360° path of the Sun into 12 equal parts. But the true boundaries that divide the constellations, as defined by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), are not exact. And Ophiuchus actually spends more time behind the Sun than its immediate neighbor (19 days compared to Scorpius’ 12).

To find out what zodiac sign you were really born under, check out this story from BBC’s iWonder. And in the meantime, here are the zodiac signs, listed in order along with what they mean, and some interesting facts associated with their respective constellations:

Aries

Aries: March 21 – April 19

The sign of Aries, which covers 0° to 30° of celestial longitude, is represented by The Ram, which is based on the Chrysomallus – the flying ram that provided the Golden Fleece in Greek mythology. Aries is associated with the First House, known traditionally as Vita (Latin for life) and in the modern context as the “House of Self”. Aries is associated with Fire, and the ruling celestial body of Aries is Mars.

The Aries constellation is also home to Teegarden’s Star, one of Sun’s closest neighbors, located approximately 12 light years away. It appears to be a red dwarf, a class of low temperature and low luminosity stars. And then there’s Alpha Areitis, which is easily spotted by the naked eye. Also known as “Hamal” – literally “head of the sheep” in Arabic – this star is located at the point where constellations angles downward to form an arc.

The constellation Aries. Credit: iau.org
The constellation Aries. Credit: iau.org

For those with telescopes, several galaxies can be spotted within the Aries constellation as well. These include the spiral galaxy NGC 772 and the large 13th magnitude NGC 697 spiral galaxy. NGC 972 is another, which is faint (at magnitude 12) and part of a galaxy group. And then there’s the dwarf irregular galaxy NGC 1156, which is considered a Magellanic-type galaxy with a larger than average core.

Aries is also home to several meteor showers, such as the May Arietids. This daylight meteor shower begins between May 4th and June 6th with maximum activity happening on May 16th. The Epsilon Arietids are also a daylight occurrence, and are active between April 25th to May 27th with peak activity on May 9th. And then there are the Daytime Arietids, which occur from May 22nd to July 2nd with a maximum rate of one a minute on June 8th.

To top it off, the Aries constellation contains several stars with extrasolar planets. For example, HIP 14810, a G5 type star, is orbited by three confirmed exoplanets, all of them giant planets (all Super-Earths). HD 12661, also a G-type main sequence star, has two orbiting planets (which appear to be Super-Jupiters). And HD 20367, a G0 type star, has one orbiting gas giant that roughly the same size as Jupiter.

Taurus

Taurus: April 20 – May 20

The sign of Taurus, which covers 30° to 60° of celestial longitude, is represented by The Bull – which is based on the Cretan Bull that fathered the Minotaur and was killed by Theseus. Taurus is associated with the Second House, known by the Latin name of Lucrum (wealth) and by the modern name, “House of Value”, and the element Earth. The ruling celestial body of Taurus is Venus.

The constellation Taurus. Credit: iau.org

Taurus’ brightest star, Alpha Tauri, is also known by its traditional name, Al Dabaran (which was Latinized to become Aldebaran). The name, which is Arabic, literally means “the Follower” because of the way the Taurus constellation appears to follow the Pleiades star cluster across the sky. In Latin, it was traditionally known as Stella Dominatrix, but to Medieval English astronomers, it was known as Oculus Tauri – literally the “eye of Taurus.”

There is one major annual meteor shower associated with the constellation of Taurus: the annual Taurids, which peak on or about November 5th of each year and have a duration period of about 45 days. The maximum fall rate for this meteor shower is about 10 meteors per hour, with many bright fireballs often occurring when the parent comet – Encke – has passed near perihelion.

And speaking of Pleiades (aka. Messier 45, The Seven Sisters) this cluster of stars is located perpendicular to Aldebaran in the night sky, and is visible to the unaided eye. Although it is made up of over 1000 confirmed stars, this object is identifiable by its seven particularly bright blue stars (though as many as 14 up can be seen with the naked eye depending on local observing conditions).

Gemini

Gemini: May 21 – June 20

The sign Gemini covers 60° to 90° of the celestial longitude, and is represented by The Twins. These are based on the Dioscuri of Greek mythology, two mortals that were granted shared godhood after death. Gemini is part of the Third House, traditionally named Fratres (Brothers) and currently known as the House of Communications. The associated element for Geminis is Air, and the ruling celestial body is Mercury.

The constellation Gemini. Credit: iau.org

Gemini’s alpha and beta stars – aka. Castor and Pollux (“The Twins”) – are the easiest to recognize and can be spotted with the naked eye. Pollux is the brighter of the two, an orange-hued giant star of magnitude 1.2 that is 34 light-years from Earth. Pollux has an extrasolar planet revolving around it, as do two other stars in Gemini, a super-Jupiter which was confirmed in 2006.

There are two annual meteor showers associated with the constellation of Gemini. The first is the March Geminids, which peaks on or around March 22nd. The average fall rate is generally about 40 per hour (but this varies) and the meteors appear to be very slow, entering our atmosphere unhurriedly and leaving lasting trails.

The second meteor shower are the Geminids themselves, which peak on or near the date of December 14th, with activity beginning up to two weeks prior and lasting for several days. The Geminids are one of the most beautiful and mysterious showers, with a rate of about 110 per hour during a moonless night.

The Gemini constellation is also associated with Messier 35, a galactic open star cluster that is easily spotted with the naked eye. The star cluster is quite young, having formed some 100 million years ago, and is quite bright due to it having blown away most of its leftover material (i.e. nebular dust and gas) that went into the star formation process. Other open clusters in Gemini include NGC 2158, which lies directly southwest of M35 in the night sky.

The open star clusters Messier 35 and NGC 2158, photographed at La Palma, Roque de los Muchachos (Degollada de los Franceses). Credit: estelar.de/Oliver Stein
The open star clusters Messier 35 and NGC 2158, photographed at La Palma, Roque de los Muchachos. Credit: estelar.de/Oliver Stein


Cancer

Cancer: June 21 – July 22

Cancer, which covers 90° to 120° of celestial longitude, is represented by The Crab – or Karkinos, a giant crab from Greek mythology that harassed Hercules during his fight with the Hydra. The sign is associated with the Fourth House – Genitor (Parent) in Latin, or the House of Home and Family in modern times. In terms of the elements, Cancers are characterized by the element of Water, and the ruling celestial body of Cancer is The Moon.

Cancer’s best known star is Beta Cancri, also known by its Arab name Altarf (“the End”). This 3.5 magnitude star is located 290 light-years from Earth and is a binary star system that consists of a spectral type K4III orange giant and a magnitude 14 red dwarf. This system is also home to a confirmed exoplanet, beta Cancri b, which is a Super-Jupiter with an orbital period of over 600 days.

In terms of deep-sky objects, Cancer is best known as being the home of Messier Object 44 (aka. Praesepe, or the Beehive Cluster), an open cluster located in the center of the constellation. Located 577 light-years from Earth, it is one of the nearest open clusters to our Solar System. M44 contains about 50 stars, the brightest of which are of the sixth magnitude.

The smaller, denser open cluster of Messier Object 67 can also be found in Cancer, which is 2500 light-years from Earth and contains approximately 200 stars. And so can the famous quasar, QSO J0842+1835, which was used to measure the speed of gravity in the VLBI experiment conducted by Edward Fomalont and Sergei Kopeikin in September 2002.

The location of the Caner constellation. Credit: IAU

The active galaxy OJ 287 is also found in the Cancer constellation. Located 3.5 billion light years away from Earth, this galaxy has a central supermassive black hole that is one of the largest known (with 18 billion solar masses), and produces quasi-periodic optical outbursts. There is only one meteor shower associated with the constellation of Cancer, which is the Delta Cancrids. The peak date for this shower is on or about January 16t, and has been known to average only about 4 comets per hour (and the meteors are very swift).

Leo

Leo: July 23 – Aug. 22

Those born under the sign of Leo, which covers 120° to 150° of celestial longitude, carry the sign of The Lion – which is based on the Nemean Lion of Greek mythology, a lion that had an impenetrable hide. The sign of Leo is tied to the Fifth House, known in Latin as Nati (Children), or by its modern name, House of Pleasure. The sign of Leo is also associated with the element of Fire and the ruling celestial body of Leo is The Sun.

There are five annual meteor showers associated with the constellation Leo. The first is the Delta Leonid meteor stream, which begins between February 5th through March 19th every year. The activity peaks in late February, and the maximum amount of meteors averages around 5 per hour. The next is the Sigma Leonid meteor shower, which begins on April 17th. This is a very weak shower, with activity rates no higher than 1 to 2 per hour.

The next is the November Leonids, the largest and most dependable meteor shower associated with the Leo constellation. The peak date is November 17th, but activity occurs around 2 days on either side of the date. The radiant is near Regulus and this is the most spectacular of modern showers.

The constellation Leo. Credit: iau.org

The shower is made more spectacular by the appearance of the Temple-Tuttle comet, which adds fresh material to the stream when it is at perihelion. The last is the Leo Minorids, which peak on or about December 14th, which is believed to produce around 10 faint meteors per hour.

Leo is also home to some of the largest structures in the observable universe. This includes many bright galaxies, which includes the Leo Triplet (aka. the M60 group). This group of objects is made up of three spiral galaxies – Messier 65, Messier 66, and NGC 3628.

The Triplet is at a distance of 37 million light-years from Earth and has a somewhat distorted shape due to gravitational interactions with the other members of the Triplet, which are pulling stars away from M66. Both M65 and M66 are visible in large binoculars or small telescopes, but seeing them in all of their elongated glory requires a telescope.

In addition, it is also home to the famous objects Messier 95, Messier 96, and Messier 105. These are spiral galaxies, in the case of M95 and M96 (with M95 being a barred spiral), while Messier 105 is an elliptical galaxy which is known to have a supermassive black hole at its center. Then there is the Leo Ring (aka. Cosmic Horseshoe) a cloud of hydrogen and helium gas, that orbits two galaxies found within this constellation.

The notable gravitational lens known as the Cosmic Horseshoe is found in Leo. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble
The notable gravitational lens known as the Cosmic Horseshoe is found in Leo. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble


Virgo

Virgo: Aug. 23 – Sept. 22

The sign of Virgo, which covers 150° to 180° of celestial longitude, is represented by the The Maiden. Based on Astraea from Greek mythology, the maiden was the last immortal to abandon Earth at the end of the Silver Age, when the gods fled to Olympus. Virgo is part of the Sixth House – Valetudo (Health) in Latin, or House of Health in modern times. They are also associated with the element of Earth and the ruling celestial body of Virgo is Mercury.

The brightest star in the Virgo constellation is Spica, a binary and rotating ellipsoidal variable – which means the two stars are so close together that they are egg-shaped instead of spherical – located between 240 and 260 light years from Earth. The primary is a blue giant and a variable star of the Beta Cephei type.

Besides Spica, other bright stars in Virgo include Beta Virginis (Zavijava), Gamma Virginis (Porrima), Delta Virginis (Auva) and Epsilon Virginis (Vindemiatrix). Other fainter stars that were also given names are Zeta Virginis (Heze), Eta Virginis (Zaniah), Iota Virginis (Syrma) and Mu Virginis (Rijl al Awwa). Virgo’s stars are also home to a great many exoplanets, with 35 verified exoplanets orbiting 29 of its stars.

The star 70 Virginis was one of the first planetary systems to have a confirmed exoplanet discovered orbiting it, which is 7.5 times the mass of Jupiter. The star Chi Virginis has one of the most massive planets ever detected, at a mass of 11.1 times that of Jupiter. The sun-like star 61 Virginis has three planets: one is a super-Earth and two are Neptune-mass planets.

The constellation Virgo. Credit: iau.org


Libra

Libra: Sept. 23 – Oct. 22

The sign of Libra covers 180° to 210° of celestial longitude. It is represented by the symbol of The Scales, which is based on the Scales of Justice held by Themis, the Greek personification of divine law and custom and the inspiration for modern depictions of Lady Justice. Libra is part of the Seventh House – Uxor (Spouse) or House of Partnership, are associated with the element of Air, and the ruling celestial body is Venus.

Two notable stars in the Libra constellation are Alpha and Beta Librae – also known as Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali, which translates to “The Southern Claw” and “The Northern Claw”. Alpha Libae is a double star consisting of an A3 primary star with a slight blue tinge and a fainter type F4 companion, both of which are located approximately 77 light years from our Sun.

Beta Librae is the brighter of the two, and the brightest star in the Virgo constellation. This is a blue star of spectral type B8 (but which appears somewhat greenish) which is located roughly 160 light years from Earth. Then there’s Gamma Librae (also called Zubenelakrab, which means “the Scorpion’s Claw”) which completes the Scorpion sign. It is an orange giant of magnitude 3.9, and is located 152 light-years from Earth.

The constellation Libra. Credit: iau.org

Libra is home to the star Gliese 581, which has a planetary system consisting of at least 6 planets. Both Gliese 581 d and Gliese 581 g are considered to be some of the most promising candidates for life. Gliese 581 c is considered to be the first Earth-like exoplanet to be found within its parent star’s habitable zone. All of these exoplanets are of significance for establishing the likelihood of life outside of the Solar System.

Libra is also home to one bright globular cluster, NGC 5897. It is a fairly large and loose cluster, has an integrated magnitude of 9, and is located 40,000 light-years from Earth.

Scorpio

Scorpio: Oct. 23 – Nov. 21

The sign of Scorpio covers 210° to 240° of celestial longitude. Scorpio is represented by The Scorpion, which is based on Scorpius – a giant scorpion in Greek mythology sent by Gaia to kill Orion. Scorpio is part of the Eighth House – Mors (Death), known today as the House of Reincarnation – and is associated with the element of Water. Traditionally, the ruling celestial body of Scorpio was Mars, but has since become Pluto.

The Scorpius constellations includes many bright stars, the brightest being Alpha Scorpii (aka. Antares). The name literally means “rival of Mars” because of its distinct reddish hue. Other stars of note include Beta Scorpii (Acrab, or “the scorpion”), Delta Scorpii (Dschubba, or “the forehead”), Xi Scorpii (Girtab, also “the scorpion”), and Sigma and Tau Scorpii (Alniyat, “the arteries”).

Lambda Scorpii (Shaula) and Upsilon Scorpii (Lesath) – whose names both mean “sting”- mark the tip of the scorpion’s curved tail. Given their proximity to one another, Lambda Scorpii and Upsilon Scorpii are sometimes referred to as “the Cat’s Eyes”.

The constellation Scorpius. Credit: iau.org

The Scorpius constellation, due to its position within the Milky Way, contains many deep-sky objects. These include the open clusters Messier 6 (the Butterfly Cluster) and Messier 7 (the Ptolemy Cluster), the open star cluster NGC 6231 (aka. Northern Jewel Box), and the globular clusters Messier 4 and Messier 80 (NGC 6093).

The constellation is also where the Alpha Scorpiids and Omega Scorpiids meteor showers take place. The Alphas begin on or about April 16th and end around May 9th, with a peak date of most activity on or about May 3rd. The second meteor shower, the Omega (or June) Scorpiids peaks on or about June 5th of each year. The radiant for this particular shower is closer to the Ophiuchus border and the activity rate on the peak date is high – with an average of about 20 meteors per hour and many reported fireballs.


Sagittarius

Sagittarius: Nov. 22 – Dec. 21

The sign of Sagittarius covers 240° to 270° of celestial longitude and is represented by The Archer. This symbol is based on the centaur Chiron, who according to Greek mythology mentored Achilles in the art of archery. Sagittarius is part of the Ninth House – known as Iter (Journeys) or the House of Philosophy. Sagittarius’ associated element is Fire (positive polarity), and the ruling celestial body is Jupiter.

Stars of note in the Sagittarius constellation include Alpha Sagittarii, which is also known as Alrami or Rukbat (literally “the archer’s knee”). Then there is Epsilon Sagittarii (“Kaus Australis” or “southern part of the bow”), the brightest star in the constellation – at magnitude 1.85. Beta Sagittarii, located at a position associated with the forelegs of the centaur, has the traditional name Arkab, which is Arabic for “achilles tendon.”

The Sagittarius constellation. Credit: iau.org

The second-brightest star is Sigma Sagittarii (“Nunki”), which is a B2V star at magnitude 2.08, approximately 260 light years from our Sun. Nunki is the oldest star name currently in use, having been assigned by the ancient Babylonians, and thought to represent the sacred Babylonian city of Eridu. Then there’s Gamma Sagittarii, otherwise known as Alnasl (the “arrowhead”). This is actually two star systems that share the same name, and both stars are actually discernible to the naked eye.

The Milky Way is at its densest near Sagittarius, since this is the direction in which the galactic center lies. Consequently, Sagittarius contains many star clusters and nebulae. This includes Messier 8 (the Lagoon Nebula), an emission (red) nebula located 5,000 light years from Earth which measures 140 by 60 light years.

Though it appears grey to the unaided eye, it is fairly pink when viewed through a telescope and quite bright (magnitude 3.0). The central area of the Lagoon Nebula is also known as the Hourglass Nebula, so named for its distinctive shape. Sagittarius is also home to the M17 Omega Nebula (also known as the Horseshoe or Swan Nebula).

This nebula is fairly bright (magnitude 6.0) and is located about 4890 light-years from Earth. Then there’s the Trifid Nebula (M20 or NGC 6514), an emission nebula that has reflection regions around the outside, making its exterior bluish and its interior pink. NGC 6559, a star forming region, is also associated with Sagittarius, located about 5000 light-years from Earth and showing both emission and reflection regions (blue and red).


Capricorn

Capricorn: Dec. 22 – Jan. 19

The sign of Capricorn spans 270° to 300° of celestial longitude and is represented by the Mountain Sea-Goat. This sign is based on Enki, the Sumerian primordial god of wisdom and waters who has the head and upper body of a mountain goat, and the lower body and tail of a fish. The sign is part of the Tenth House – Regnum (Kingdom), or The House of Social Status. Capricorns are associated with the element Earth, and the ruling body body is Saturn.

The constellation Capricornus. Credit: iau.org

The brightest star in Capricornus is Delta Capricorni, also called Deneb Algedi. Like other stars such as Denebola and Deneb, it is named for the Arabic word for “tail”, which in this case translates to “the tail of the goat’. Deneb Algedi is a eclipsing binary star with a magnitude of 2.9, and which is located 39 light-years from Earth.

Another bright star in the Capricorni constellation is Alpha Capricorni (Algedi or Geidi, Arabic for “the kid”), which is an optical double star (two stars that appear close together) – both o which are binaries. It’s primary (Alpha² Cap) is a yellow-hued giant of magnitude 3.6, located 109 light-years from Earth, while its secondary (Alpha¹ Cap) is a yellow-hued supergiant of magnitude 4.3, located 690 light-years from Earth.

Beta Capricorni is a double star known as Dabih, which comes from the Arabic phrase “the lucky stars of the slaughter” a reference to ritual sacrifices performed by ancient Arabs. Its primary is a yellow-hued giant star of magnitude 3.1, 340 light-years from Earth, while the secondary is a blue-white hued star of magnitude 6.1. Another visible star is Gamma Capricorni (aka. Nashira, “bringing good tidings”), which is a white-hued giant star of magnitude 3.7, 139 light-years from Earth.

Several galaxies and star clusters are contained within Capricornus. This includes Messier 30 (NGC 7099) a centrally-condensed globular cluster of magnitude 7.5. Located approximately 30,000 light-years from our Sun, it cannot be seen with the naked eye, but has chains of stars extending to the north that can be seen with a telescope.

Messier 30, imaged by the Hubble Telescope. Credit: NASA/Wikisky
The globular cluster Messier 30, imaged by the Hubble Telescope. Credit: NASA/Wikisky

And then there is the galaxy group known as HCG 87, a group of at least three galaxies located 400 million light-years from Earth. It contains a large elliptical galaxy, a face-on spiral galaxy, and an edge-on spiral galaxy. These three galaxies are interacting, as evidenced by the high amount of star formation in the face-on spiral, and the connecting stream of stars and dust between edge-on spiral and elliptical galaxy.

The constellation of Capricornus has one meteor shower associated with it. The Capricornid meteor stream peaks on or about July 30th and is active for about a week before and after, with an average fall rate is about 10 to 30 per hour.

Aquarius

Aquarius: Jan. 20 – Feb. 18

Aquarius, which spans 300° to 330° of celestial longitude, is represented by the Water Bearer. In ancient Greek mythology, Aquarius is Ganymede, the beautiful Phrygian youth who was snatched up by Zeus to become the cup-bearer of the Gods. Aquarius is part of the Eleventh House – Benefacta (Friendship), or House of Friendship, is associated with the element of Air. Traditionally, the ruling celestial body of Aquarius was Saturn, but has since changed to Uranus.

While Aquarius has no particularly bright stars, recent surveys have shown that there are twelve exoplanet systems within the constellation (as of 2013). Gliese 876, one of the nearest stars (15 light-years), was the first red dwarf start to be found to have a planetary system – which consists of four planets, one of which is a terrestrial Super-Earth. 91 Aquarii is an orange giant star orbited by one planet, 91 Aquarii b, a Super-Jupiter. And Gliese 849 is a red dwarf star orbited by the first known long-period Jupiter-like planet, Gliese 849 b.

The constellation Aquarius. Credit: iau.org

Aquarius is also associated with multiple Messier objects. M2 (NGC 7089) is located in Aquarius, which is an incredibly rich globular cluster located approximately 37,000 light-years from Earth. So is the four-star asterism M73 (which refers to a group of stars that appear to be related by their proximity to each other). Then there’s the small globular cluster M72, a globular cluster that lies a degree and half to the west of M73.

Aquarius is also home to several planetary nebulae. NGC 7293, also known as the Helix Nebula, is located at a distance of about 650 light years away, making it the closest planetary nebula to Earth. Then there’s the Saturn Nebula (NGC 7009) so-named because of its apparent resemblance to the planet Saturn through a telescope, with faint protrusions on either side that resemble Saturn’s rings.

There are five meteor showers associated with the constellation of Aquarius. The Southern Iota Aquarids begin around July 1st and end around September 18th, with the peak date occurring on August 6th with an hourly rate of 7-8 meteors average. The Northern Iota Aquarids occur between August 11th to September 10th, their maximum peak occurring on or about August 25th with an average of 5-10 meteors per hour.

Image of the Helix Nebula, combining from information from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX). Credit: NASA
Image of the Helix Nebula, combining from information from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX). Credit: NASA

The Southern Delta Aquarids begin about July 14th and end around August 18th with a maximum hourly rate of 15-20 peaking on July 29th. The Northern Delta Aquarids usually begin around July 16th, and last through September 10th. The peak date occurs on or around August 13th with a maximum fall rate of about 10 meteors per hour.

Then there is the Eta Aquarid meteor shower, which begins about April 21th and ends around May 12th. It reaches its maximum on or about May 5th with a peak fall rate of up to 20 per hour for observers in the northern hemisphere and perhaps 50 per hour for observers in the southern hemisphere. Last, there is the March Aquarids, a daylight shower that may be associated with the Northern Iota Aquarid stream.


Pisces

Pisces: Feb. 19 – March 20

The sign of Pisces covers 330° to 360° of celestial longitude and is represented by the The Fish. This symbol is derived from the ichthyocentaurs – a pair of centaurian sea-gods that had the upper body of a male human, the lower front of a horse, and the tail of a fish – who aided Aphrodite when she was born from the sea. Pisces is part of the Twelfth House of Carcer (Prison), or The House of Self-Undoing, and are associated with the element of Water. The ruling celestial body of Pisces is traditionally Jupiter, but has since come to be Neptune.

The constellation Pisces. Credit: iau.org

Beta Piscium, also known as Samakah (the “Fish’s Mouth”), is a B-class hydrogen fusing dwarf star in the Pisces constellation. Located 495 light years from Earth, this star produces 750 times more than light than our own Sun and is believed to be 60 million years old. The brightest star in the constellation, Eta Piscium, is a bright class B star that is located 294 years away from our Solar System.

This star is also known by its Babylonian name, Kullat Nunu (which translates to “cord of the fish”), the Arab name Al Pherg (“pouring point of water”), and the Chinese name Yòu Gèng – which means “Official in Charge of the Pasturing“, referring to an asterism consisting of Eta Piscium and its immediate neighbors – Rho Piscium, Pi Piscium, Omicron Piscium, and 104 Piscium.

And then there’s van Maanen’s Star (aka. Van Maanen 2) a white dwarf that is located about 14 light years from our Sun, making it the third closest star of its kind to our system (after Sirius B and Procyon B). Gamma Piscium is a yellow-orange giant star located about 130 light years away, and is visible with just binoculars.

The Pisces constellationis also home to a number of deep-sky objects. These include M74, a loosely-wound spiral galaxy that lies at a distance of 30 million light years from our Sun. It has many clusters of young stars and the associated nebulae, showing extensive regions of star formation. Also, there’s CL 0024+1654, a massive galaxy cluster that is primarily made up of yellow elliptical and spiral galaxies.  CL 0024+1654 lies at a distance of 3.6 billion light-years from Earth and lenses the galaxy behind it (i.e. it creates arc-shaped images of the background galaxy).

Last, there the active galaxy and radio source known as 3C 31. Located at a distance of 237 million light-years from Earth, this galaxy has a supermassive black hole at its center. In addition to being the source of its radio waves, this black hole is also responsible for creating the massive jets that extend several million light-years in both directions from its center – making them some of the largest objects in the universe.

There is one annual meteor shower associated with Pisces which peaks on or about October 7 of each year. The Piscid meteor shower has a radiant near the Aries constellation and produces an average of 15 meteors per hour which have been clocked at speeds of up to 28 kilometers per second. As always, the meteoroid stream can begin a few days earlier and end a few days later than the expected peak and success on viewing depends on dark sky conditions.

Currently, the Vernal Equinox is currently located in Pisces. In astronomy, equinox is a moment in time at which the vernal point, celestial equator, and other such elements are taken to be used in the definition of a celestial coordinate system. Due to the precession of the equinoxes, the Vernal Equinox is slowly drifting towards Aquarius.

Astrology is a tradition that has been with us for thousands of years and continues to be observed by many people and cultures around the world. Today, countless people still consult their horoscope to see what the future has in store, and many more consider their birth sign to be of special significance.

And the fact that many people still consider it to be valid is an indication that superstitious and “magical” thinking is something we have yet to completely outgrow. But this goes to show how some cultural traditions are so enduring, and how people still like to ascribe supernatural powers to the universe.

We have a complete guide to all 88 constellations here at Universe Today. Research them at your leisure, and be sure to check out more than just the “zodiac sign” ones!

We also have a comprehensive list of all the Messier Objects in the night sky.

Astronomy Cast also has an episode on Zodiac Signs – Episode 319: The Zodiac

How Big Is The Big Dipper?

The Big Dipper is big. Come on, it’s right there in the name. But how big is the Big Dipper if you could see it from all angles?

Ask someone to name a constellation and they’ll usually say the Big Dipper. Anyone living in the Northern hemisphere who can draw a spoon generally can recognize it in the sky.

I am about to shake the foundations of your reality with a level of pedantry that at bare minimum should earn me a solid shaking and possibly even a face punch or two. The Big Dipper is not, and never will be a constellation.

It’s an asterism, a familiar pattern of stars in the sky. There are 88 constellations, and the Big Dipper isn’t one of them. It’s a part of the constellation of Ursa Major. In fact, the handle of your familiar spoon is actually the tail of the great bear.

Now that I’ve lulled you to sleep with some painfully uninteresting specifics, which you can bust out to make yourself unpopular at your AV Club pop and chip parties whenever someone refers to the “Big D” as a constellation. I strongly suggest whatever it is you tell them, you start off with *ACTUALLY….*

And now that you’ve made it this far, I shall reward you with what you’re seeking. Just how big is that Big Dipper? There are a couple of ways to skin this bear’s tail. We can say its size relative to the amount of sky real estate it occupies, or we can do the end to end Kessel run.

This chart shows the constellation of Carina (The Keel) and includes all the stars that can be seen with the unaided eye on a clear and dark night. This region of the sky includes some of the brightest star formation regions in the Milky Way. The location of the distant, but very bright and compact, open star cluster NGC 3603 is marked. This object is not spectacular in small telescopes, appearing as just a tight clump of stars surrounded by faint nebulosity. Credit: ESO
This chart shows the constellation of Carina (The Keel) and includes all the stars that can be seen with the unaided eye on a clear and dark night. Credit: ESO

You might be surprised to know how much of the sky it takes up. Astronomers measure the sky in degrees. 360 degrees takes you all the way around the sky, and our Moon measures half a degree across.

Dubhe and Merak are the pointer stars in the Big Dipper. You could put 11 full Moons side to side in the gap between them. And about 40 full Moons from bottom corner of the Dipper to the end of its handle. So, the Big Dipper measures about 20 degrees.

Here are some easy ways to measure sizes. Your pinkie nail, held at arm’s length is half a degree. 3 fingers is 5 degrees, your fist is 10 degrees. Rocking out with devil horns are 15 degrees and hang loose or the inspector gadget phone is 25 degrees.

Trekkers and Trekkies may prefer to use the Vulcan live long and prosper measurement, which is about the same number of degrees you are from getting a romantic companion.

Big Dipper Past. Credit: Alexander Meleg
Big Dipper Past. Credit: Alexander Meleg

So, stem to stern, how big is our giant celestial ladle? I know you know those things aren’t in anything resembling a straight line. Some of the stars are closer, and some of the stars are further out. If you could make a box that completely surrounded them, how big would it be?

The closest star in the asterism is Megrez at 58 light years. and the most distant is Dubhe at 124 light-years. And yet, they all look roughly the same brightness. This means that Dubhe is a much brighter star than Megrez, and it’s just further away. Because these stars are moving in the sky what we see as a Big Dipper today didn’t always look this way. 150,000 years ago, the Big Dipper looked like this (above).

Big Dipper Future. Credit: Alexander Meleg
Big Dipper Future. Credit: Alexander Meleg

And in 150,000 years from now it’ll look like this (left). Less dipper, more plow-like. Or maybe a shoe form? Shoes are kind of like ladles, right? Super gross, terribly unhygenic ladles.

Our brains keep from exploding by being pattern making machines. We see collections of stars in the sky and turn them into shapes. But it’s all just a matter of perspective. You’ve got to be right here and now to see the sky we do. Unless you’re looking for a giant “W” in which case you’ll always find one of those. It may not be the constellation Cassiopeia, but it’ll still be a pattern in the stars.

What’s your favorite asterism? Tell us in the comments below.

Astronomy Cast 319: The Zodiac

Although the Zodiac is best known for astrology nonsense, it has a purpose in astronomy too. The constellations of the Zodiac define the plane of the ecliptic: the region where the Sun, Moon and planets appear to travel through the sky. What are the constellations of the Zodiac, and how do astronomers use them as way points?

We record Astronomy Cast as a live Google+ Hangout on Air every Monday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch here on Universe Today or from the Astronomy Cast Google+ page.

Asterisms: Signposts in the Sky

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Humans have been grouping stars into patterns since the beginning of time, each culture placing its own myths and folklore in the sky, but it wasn’t until 1930 that the International Astronomical Union (IAU) divided the sky into 88 constellations each with its own strict boundary. Though many of these are well known, and the stories they depict are well documented, few look like the figures they are supposed to represent. Asterisms are more user friendly guides and the starting point for most astronomers. These bright, simple, more prosaic shapes, stand out among the constellations and often serve as useful landmarks, pointing the way to celestial delights!

The best known and most instantly recognisable asterism is probably the Plough or Big Dipper in Ursa Major. Two of its stars, Merak and Dubhe, (The Pointers) pointing the way to the North Star Polaris in Ursa Minor. NASA’s Juno spacecraft stopped on its 5 year journey to Jupiter on March 21 to capture this image of our best known asterism:

The Big Dipper by Juno Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SWRI/MSSS

In the Northern hemisphere, each season is heralded by its own asterism: The Autumn sky is dominated by the great Square of Pegasus, formed by stars from both Pegasus and Andromeda and its top left corner points the way to the Andromeda Galaxy, just a hop, skip and jump away. Most people recognise the three stars Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka, making up the Belt of Orion, which shines bright in the Winter sky indicating one of the richest regions in the sky, the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex. The Diamond of Virgo marking the Spring, consists of Arcturus (Boötes), Spica (Virgo), Denebola (Leo) and Cor Caroli (Canes Venatici). These encompass the constellation Coma Berenices and many of the galaxies within the Virgo Cluster. The Summer Triangle of Deneb (Cygnus), Altair (Aquila), and Vega (Lyra) currently sails over us guiding the way to the Ring Nebula in its top right corner.

Searching for Leo? Look for the Sickle, a backwards question mark that represents the lion’s head. Hunting for Hercules? The Keystone is the key and you will also find the Hercules Cluster (M13) on its right hand side. Boötes is easier to spot if you look for the Kite or Ice Cream Cone, than try to make out an ox driver! Not many people can see poor Queen Cassiopia, punished for her vanity to circle the heavens, but the W that marks the constellation is instantly recognisable. The Circlet is a lovely signpost to one of the fish of Pisces. You’d be hard pressed to recognise Sagittarius as the centaur it depicts, but there is the Teapot (Bertrand Russell was right, there is a celestial teapot!) showing the way to this rich patch of sky.

The Southern hemisphere has no shortage of asterisms either, most notably Argo Navis which represents the entire ship Argo sailed by Jason and the Argonauts and would be the largest constellation in the sky if it hadn’t been broken up in 1752 by French astronomer Nicolas Louis de Lacaille into the constellations we know today as Carina (the keel), Puppis (the poop deck) and Vela (the sails). Also in the Southern hemisphere are found The Three Patriachs in Triangulum Australe and the Fish Hook in Scorpius among others.

There are many more obscure asterisms too. Job’s Coffin graces the constellation of Delphinus, Asses and the Manger are in Cancer, Poniatowski’s bull (named for the King of Poland) is part of Ophiuchus and Aquila. There are the Lozenge, Saxophone, Coathanger, and many more.

The sky can seem a bewildering place, filled with gods, kings and mythical creatures. Asterisms like the Teapot make a more welcoming and friendly introduction, allowing a novice stargazer to easily pick their way around the sky and gain confidence and as many stars get swallowed by increasing light pollution, asterisms still shine out to show the way.

Find out more about asterisms here.

Galaxy Names

The Tadpole Galaxy

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Galaxy names come in a bewildering range of forms; from descriptive (e.g. Whirlpool Galaxy, Black Eye Galaxy, The Eyes), to ones that seem to relate to a constellation (e.g. Andromeda Galaxy, Hydra A, Leo I), to ones named after a person (e.g. Stephan’s Quintet, Malin I, Mayall’s Object), to letter+number combinations (e.g. the Messier catalog galaxies such as M33 and M87), to letters+number combinations (e.g. NGC 3115, DDO 185), to impossible-to-remember stings-with-dashes-dots-and-pluses like MCG-06-07-001, 4C37.11, and SDSS J002240.91+143110.4!

And sometimes a galaxy has LOTS of different names, such as M87, Virgo A, NGC 4486, Arp 152, 3C274, IRAS 12282+1240, WMAP J123051+1223 (there’s, like, about another 20!).

However, of the estimated 100 billion galaxies we could observe, with current astronomical facilities, only a few million have names, and most of those are unique (i.e. only one name per galaxy). Of course, almost all the single-name galaxies are little more than faint smudges in an optical or infrared image … and that gives a clue to where the names come from!

Most galaxy names come from the catalog, or catalogs, in which they appear. The catalogs have many sources, but most recent ones have been put together as a key output of a dedicated survey or mission, and the galaxy name reflects that. So, for example, SDSS stands for Sloan Digital Sky Survey (one of the most amazing optical/NIR galaxy surveys of all time), IRAS for InfraRed Astronomy Satellite, DDO for David Dunlap Observatory (where a catalogue of dwarf galaxies was put together), and 4C for 4th Cambridge survey (a radio survey). Some of the older catalogs, or lists, were put together from previously known galaxies, or objects (the Messier list is perhaps the most famous example).

More to explore, on galaxy names. The online dedicated, searchable database NED (NASA/IPAC Extragalactic Database) is astronomers’ essential resource; SEDS’ (Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, hosted by the University of Arizona LPL) Messier galaxy section is amateurs’ favorite; and Galaxy names are identified by a group of letters and numbers. What do they stand for? (Hubblesite).

Universe Today articles on galaxy names? Sure! Here is a small sample: This Where in the Universe Challenge, Astrophoto: NGC 4631 by Bernd Wallner, and Have a Cigar! New Observations of Messier 82.

Astronomy Cast’s Milky Way episode has more on galaxy names; well worth a listen!

Sources: Hubblesite, SDSS, IRAS, DDO, NASA/IPAC

Astronomy Without A Telescope – Let’s Go Around The Room

My dog keeps me in touch with the universe. There are important reasons why he has to go out into the backyard about 9pm and then again around 5.00am – and at both times there are stars out. He has this very particular sound, the canine equivalent of ahem, to let me know it’s time.

Around February is great because on the night shift you see Orion and on the morning shift you see Scorpio. These are two of three constellations, I can easily identify without a book – the other one being the Southern Cross. And this is the only time of the year when I get to see all three, since by the time Scorpio is up in the evenings around August, Orion is already lost to the glare of daytime.

This reminds me of a plan I have to once and for all explain to people how the night sky works. You wallpaper a room with your equatorial and/or ecliptic constellations and on the roof put your circumpolar constellations, which would include the Southern Cross down here or Ursa Minor for your northern folk. Then in the middle of the room you put a big and glaringly bright light.

So around February, you are in that part of the room where when you face away from the light you can see Orion. Then spinning on the spot, you’ll be able to spy Scorpio just before you come around to face the bright light, which prevents you from seeing what’s on the other side of the room. Keep spinning and you come back to night time and admire Orion again – and so on.

Cool wallpaper - the Pleiades, Hyades and Orion as seen from the southern hemisphere

To progress through the year you have to start walking around the room, that is orbiting the bright light – and you can keep spinning on the spot for the day night effect if you like. Once you are around on the other side of the room – you get a much better night-long view of Scorpio, while Orion is lost behind the bright light. Your circumpolar constellations are still visible on the ceiling – but kind of upside down now.

It’s taken a few nights out with the dog to figure out which way you are supposed to spin – not to mention which way to put the wallpaper since if your at my latitude in the north, you’ll need to hang it upside down. For me, if I’m standing in front of Orion, Scorpio is going to be around to my right (but left for you) – and I’m going to orbit to my right (but left for you) – and I’m going to spin clockwise (but anti-clockwise for you).

I almost have it all visualized when there’s certain ahem as dog realizes master is staring vacantly at the sky again. Oh yeah sorry, good dog – and we go back inside.

Asterism

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The Big Dipper is an asterism (well-known to those who live in the northern hemisphere), so is the False Cross (well-known to those who live in the southern hemisphere). Asterisms are easily recognized pattern of *s*t*a*r*s* (but not a constellation).

The sky is full of asterisms easily seen without a telescope or binoculars: Summer Triangle, Great Square of Pegasus, the W in Cassiopeia, Frying Pan, Orion’s Belt, … it’s a long list.

The Southern Cross is not an asterism, strictly speaking, because it’s a constellation (Crux).

An asterism can take in parts of more than one constellation; for example, the Square of Pegasus has three stars in Pegasus (the three brightest, alpha, beta, and gamma Peg), and one in Andromeda (alpha And).

Some well-known asterisms are visible only through a telescope or binoculars; for example the Coathanger, and Kemble’s Cascade.

A couple (at least) of open clusters are also asterisms – the Hyades and the Pleiades (also known as the Seven Sisters).

Some clear, fixed features in the night sky, with well-known names, are not asterisms or constellations … the Coalsack for example, is a dark cloud in the plane of the Milky Way which blocks its light, and the Magellanic Clouds are dwarf, satellite galaxies of our own.

As astronomy in many cultures developed independently of the West (ancient Greece, Rome, etc), many of the commonly recognized constellations in those cultures correspond to asterisms … see if you can recognize some of the Chinese ones!

A particularly interesting kind of constellation is the dark constellation; instead of joining up bright stars to make an easily recognized figure, some cultures linked various dark nebulae in the Milky Way; for example the Emu in the Sky of the Australian Aborigines (and no, these are not asterisms).

SEDS (Students for the Exploration and Development of Space) has a concise list of asterisms easily visible without binoculars, or a telescope (though you may have to go to the opposite hemisphere to see them all!).

Asterisms are mentioned in many of Universe Today’s Weekend SkyWatcher’s Forecasts (August 21-23, 2009, for example), in its articles on Constellations (e.g. Orion), and Kids Astronomy ones (e.g. Finding the Summer Triangle).

Phoenix

The southern constellation of Phoenix was one of twelve created by Petrus Plancius from the observations of Dutch navigators, Pieter Dirkszoon Keyser and Frederick de Houtman. It first appeared on celestial globe published in the late 1500s and was first depicted in a celestial atlas by Johann Bayer in 1603. Phoenix resides south of the ecliptic plane and covers approximately 469 square degrees of sky, ranking 37th in size. It contains 4 main stars in its asterism and has 25 Bayer Flamsteed designated stars within its confines. Phoenix is bordered by the constellations of Sculptor, Grus, Tucana, Hydrus, Eridanus and Fornax. It is visible to observers located at latitudes between +32° and ?90° and is best seen when it reaches culmination during the month of November.

There is one annual meteor shower associated with the constellation of Phoenix which peaks on or about December 5 of each year – the Phoenicids. The appearance of the meteor was observed by the corps of the first South Pole passing the winter in South Pole observation ship Soya, Japan while toward in 1956 the South Pole it until about 13:45 to 18:00 at the world. The meteor shower is considered to be new and understudied, so there is no predicted fall rate – nor is there an established peak date. The Phoenicids are associated with the comet D/1819 W1 (Blanpain). The comet was observed in 1819 and was missing. However, it turned out that the asteroid 2003 WY25 discovered in 2003 was the same as this comet in 2005. The duration of this shower extends from November 29 to December 9.

Because Phoenix is considered a “new” constellation, there is no mythology associated with it. It is named after the legendary bird which rose from its own ashes. The bird was also said to regenerate when hurt or wounded by a foe, thus being almost immortal and invincible – it is also said that it can heal a person with a tear from its eyes and make them temporarily immune to death; It is a symbol of fire and divinity – also representing the rising and setting of the Sun.

Let’s begin our binocular tour of Phoenix with its brightest star – Alpha – the “a” symbol on our map. Located about 77 light years from Earth, Alpha Phoenicis goes by the traditional name of Ankaa – “the bright one of the boat”. Ankaa is an orange giant star about in the mid-life of its helium burning phase of its stellar evolution. If it continues to behave normally, it will eventually sheds its outer layers in a planetary nebula and ends its life quietly as a white dwarf star. It is known that Ankaa is a double star and has a small stellar companion, but currently little to nothing is known about the companion.

Now, point your telescope at Beta – the “B” symbol on our map. Beta Phoenicis is beautiful, bright yellow double-star is only 1.4 arc seconds in separation, with a position angle of 346 degrees. Other than a companion, it’s a very typical K type star.

How about Gamma the figure “8” symbol? Turn binoculars its way. Located 235 light years away, this rare M-class giant star that puts out 575 times more light than Sol at a very cool 3900 degrees Kelvin. Gamma is evolving a lot faster than our own Sun, passing through a stage where it is an irregular variable star and heading towards being a K-type giant star. Although we know little else, we do know Gamma has a spectroscopic companion, making it a true binary star.

Aim your telescope about 2 degrees northeast of Gamma for NGC 265 (RA 1:35.1 Dec -41:26). At magnitude 12, this fairly small galaxy isn’t going to set any records, but you’ll pick up an elongated form with a bright nucleus. If you see patchy structure in this spiral galaxy, there’s good reason… It’s a Starburst Galaxy!

For a big telescope challenge, try your luck with Abell Galaxy Cluster 2870. Of this galaxy group, the brightest is IC 1625 (RA 01:07:42.4 Dec -46:54:27) and we’re looking at approximately magnitude 13 and about 2 arc minutes in size. It wouldn’t be a challenge if it were easy!

Source: Wikipedia
Chart Courtesy of Your Sky.

Leo

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Positioned directly on the ecliptic plane, Leo is a constellation of the zodiac preceded by Cancer to the west and followed by Virgo to the east. It is an ancient constellation, originally charted by Ptolemy and recognized by the International Astronomical Union as one of the 88 modern constellations. Leo spans 947 square degrees of sky and is the twelfth largest of all. It contains 3 bright stars and around 15 stars in its asterism, with 92 Bayer/Flamsteed designated stars within its confines. It is bordered by the constellations of Ursa Major, Leo Minor, Lynx, Cancer, Hydra, Sextans, Crater, Virgo and Coma Berenices. Leo is visible to all observers located at latitudes between +90° and ?65° and is best seen at culmination during the month of April.

There are five annual meteor showers associated with constellation Leo. The first is the Delta Leonid meteor stream which begins becoming active between February 5 through March 19 every year. The activity peaks in late February with no exact date, and the maximum amount of activity averages around 5 meteor per hour. The next date is April 17 and the Sigma Leonid meteor shower. Look for this rare occurrence to happen near the Leo/Virgo border. It is a very weak shower and activity rates no higher than 1 to 2 meteors per hour. The next is the most dependable shower of all – the November Leonids. The peak date is November 17th, but activity occurs around 2 days on either side of the date. The radiant is near Regulus and this is the most spectacular of modern showers. The year 1966 saw 500,000 per hour a rate of up 140 per second! Just a few years ago, in 2005 the rates were equally impressive. Why? Comet Temple-Tuttle is the answer. Whenever it nears perihelion, it adds fresh material to the stream and gives us a spectacular show. On the average, you can expect around 20 per hour between 33 year shows, but they are the fastest known at 71 kps. The last is the Leo Minorids which peak on or about December 14. This meteor shower was discovered by amateurs in 1971 and hasn’t really been confirmed yet, but do look for around 10 faint meteors per hour.

In Greek mythology, Leo was identified as the Nemean Lion, which may have been the source of the “tail” of the lion that killed Hercules during one of his twelve labors. While many constellations are difficult to visualize, Leo’s backwards question-mark is relatively easily to picture as a majestic lion set in stars. One of the reasons for its placement in the zodiac is possibly due to the fact that lions left their place in the desert for the banks of the Nile when the Sun was positioned in these stars. It is also possible that the Nile’s rise at this time and the lion’s migration is also the reason for the Sphinx to appear as it does – a leonine figure. The Persians called it Ser or Shir; the Turks, Artan; the Syrians, Aryo; the Jewish, Arye; the Indians, “Sher”; and the Babylonians, Aru — all meaning a lion. Early Hindu astronomers recognized it by regal names, as did other cultures. All befitting of the “King of Beasts”!

Let’s begin our tour by taking a look at the brightest star – Alpha Leonis – the “a” symbol on our map. Its name is Regulus and it is one hot customer when it comes to spin rate. Revolving completely on its axis in a little less than 16 hours, oblate Regulus would fly apart if it were moving any faster. Ranking as the twenty-first brightest star in the night sky, Alpha Leonis is a helium type star about 5 times larger and 160 times brighter than our own Sun. Speeding away from us at 3.7 kilometers per second, Regulus isn’t alone, either. The “Little King” is a multiple star system composed of a hot, bright, bluish-white star with a pair of small, faint companions easily seen in small telescopes. The companion is itself a double at around magnitude 13 and is a dwarf of an uncertain type. There is also a 13th magnitude fourth star in this grouping, but it is believed that it is not associated with Regulus since the “Little King” is moving toward it and will be about 14″ away in 785 years. Not bad for a star that’s been reigning the skies for around for a few million years!

Let’s fade east now, and take a look at Beta Leonis – the “B” symbol on our map. Its name is Denebola which means the “Lion’s tail” in Arabic. Located about 36 light years from Earth, this white class A dwarf star is more luminous than the Sun, emitting 12 times the solar energy and a Delta-Scuti type variable star. While that in itself isn’t particularly rare, what makes Denebola unusual is that it belongs to the Vega-class stars – ones that have a shroud of infra-red emitting dust around them. This could mean a possibility of planet forming capabilities! In binoculars, look for an optical double star companion to Beta. It’s not gravitationally, or physically related, but it’s a pleasing pairing.

Now, return to Regulus and hop up for Eta Leonis, the “n” symbol on our map. Eta is very special because of its huge distance – about 2100 light years from our solar system – and that’s only a guess. It is a supergiant star, and one that is losing its stellar mass at a huge rate. Compared to Sol, Eta loses 100,000 times more mass each year! Because of its position near the ecliptic plane, Eta is also frequently occulted by the Moon. Thanks to alert observers, that’s how we learned that Eta is also a very close binary star, too – with a companion only about 40% dimmer than the primary. Some time over the next 17 million years, the pair of red supergiant stars will probably merge to become a pair of massive white dwarf stars… or they may just blow up. Only time will tell…

Hop north for Gamma Leonis – the “Y” symbol on our map. Its name is Algeiba and it is a very fine double visual star for binoculars and and true binary star small telescopes. Just take a look at this magnificent orange red and and yellow pair under magnification and you’ll return again and again. The brighter primary star is a giant K type and orbiting out about four times the distance of Pluto is its giant G type companion. Further north you’ll find another excellent visual double star for binoculars – Zeta Leonis. It’s name is Aldhafera and this stellar spectral class F star is about 260 light years away.

Are you ready to try your hand at locating a pair of galaxies with binoculars? Then let’s try the “Leo Trio” – M65, M66 and NGC 3623. Return towards Beta and look for the triangular area that marks the asterism of Leo’s “hips”. If the night is suitable for binocular galaxy hunting, you will clearly see fifth magnitude Iota Leonis south of Theta. Aim your binoculars between them. Depending on the field of view size of your binoculars, a trio of galaxies will be visible in about one third to one fourth of the area you see. Don’t expect them to walk right out, but don’t sell your binoculars short, either. The M65 and M66 pair have higher surface brightness and sufficient size to be noticed as two opposing faint smudges. NGC 3623 is spot on the same magnitude, but is edge on in presentation instead of face-on. This makes it a lot harder to spot, but chances are very good your averted vision will pick it up while studying the M65/66 pair. The “Leo Trio” makes for a fine challenge!

Now let’s begin working with larger binoculars and small telescopes as we head for M96 galaxy group (RA 10h 46m 45.7s Dec +11 49′ 12″). Messier 96 is the brightest spiral galaxy within the M96 Group which includes Messier 95 and Messier 105 as well as at least nine other galaxies. Located about 38 million light years away, this group of galaxies with the Hubble Space Telescope and 8 Delta Cephei variable stars were found to help determine each individual galaxy’s distance. While you can’t expect to see each member in small optics, larger telescopes can hope to find elliptical galaxies NGC 3489 (11:00.3 +13:54), NGC 3412 (10:50.9 +13:25), NGC 3384 (10:48.3 +12:38) and NGC 3377 (10:47.7 +13:59), as well as barred spiral galaxy NGC 3299 (10:36.4 +12:42),

For an awesome spiral galaxy in a small telescope, don’t overlook NGC 2903 (RA 9:32.2 Dec +21:30). At a bright magnitude 9, you can often see this particular galaxy in binoculars from a dark sky site as well. Discovered by William Herschel in 1784, this beauty is often considered a missing Messier because it just so bright and conspicuous. As a matter of fact, the comet of 1760 passed it on a night Messier was watching and he didn’t even see it! For larger telescopes, look for NGC 2905 – a bright knot which is actually a star forming region in the galaxy itself with its own Herschel designation.

Before we leave, you must stop by NGC 3521 (RA 11:05.8 Dec -00:02). This 35 million light year distant spiral galaxy is often overlooked for no apparent reason – but it shouldn’t be. At a very respectable magnitude 9, you can often find this elongated gem with the bright nucleus in larger binoculars from a dark sky site and you can easily study spiral galaxy structure with a larger telescope. Look for an inclined view with patchiness in the structure that indicates great star forming regions at work. Its stellar counter rotation is being studied because it has a bar structure that we are seeing “end on”!

This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what you can find on Leo’s hide. Be sure to get yourself a good star chart or sky atlas and go lion taming!

Sources: SEDS, Wikipedia
Chart Courtesy of Your Sky.

Gemini

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Gemini is a constellation of the zodiac, positioned on the ecliptic plane between between Taurus to the west and Cancer to the east. Only its Alpha and Beta stars – Castor and Pollux – are easy to recognize. They represent the “Twins”. Gemini is one of the original 48 constellations charted by Ptolemy and has endured to become a part of the 88 modern constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union. It covers approximately 54 square degrees of sky and contains 17 main stars in the asterism, with 80 stars possessing Bayer/Flamsteed designations. Gemini is bordered by the constellations of Lynx, Auriga, Taurus, Orion, Monoceros, Canis Minor and Cancer. It can be viewed by all observers located at latitudes between +90° and ?60° and is best seen at culmination during the month of February.

There are two annual meteor showers associated with the constellation of Gemini. The first peaks on or around the date of March 22, and are referred to as the March Geminids. This meteor shower was first discovered in 1973 and then confirmed in 1975. The average fall rate is generally about 40 per hour, but the meteoroid stream is unstudied and it may vary. These appear to be very slow meteors, entering our atmosphere unhurriedly and leaving lasting trails.

The second meteor shower associated with Gemini are the Geminids themselves, which peak on or near the date of December 14th, with activity beginning up to two weeks prior and last several days beyond the date. The Geminids are one of the most hauntingly beautiful and mysterious displays of celestial fireworks all year – first noted in 1862 by Robert P. Greg in England, and B. V. Marsh and Prof. Alex C. Twining of the United States in independent studies. The annual appearance of the Geminid stream was weak initially, producing no more than a few per hour, but it has grown in intensity during the last century and a half. By 1877, astronomers had realized this was a new annual shower – producing about 14 meteors per hour. At the turn of the last century, the rate had increased to over 20; and by the 1930s, up to 70 per hour. Only ten years ago observers recorded an outstanding 110 per hour during a moonless night…

So why are the Geminids such a mystery? Most meteor showers are historic – documented and recorded for hundreds of years – and we know them as originating with cometary debris. But when astronomers began looking for the Geminids’ parent comet, they found none. It wasn’t until October 11, 1983 that Simon Green and John K. Davies, using data from NASA’s Infrared Astronomical Satellite, detected an object (confirmed the next night by Charles Kowal) that matched the orbit of the Geminid meteoroid stream. But this was no comet, it was an asteroid – in fact, a 14th magnitude asteroid which is passing Earth tonight from a distance of less than 18 million kilometers! Now considered a Potential Hazardous Asteroid (PHA), 3200 Phaeton comes within 3.2 million kilometers of Earth’s orbit about every 17 months. Originally designated as 1983 TB, but later renamed 3200 Phaethon, this apparently rocky solar system member has a highly elliptical orbit that places it within 0.15 AU of the Sun during every solar system tour. But asteroids can’t fragment like a comet – or can they? The original hypothesis was that since Phaethon’s orbit passes through the asteroid belt, it may have collided with one or more asteroids, creating rocky debris. This sounded good, but the more we studied the more we realized the meteoroid “path” occurred when Phaethon neared the Sun. So now our asteroid is behaving like a comet, yet it doesn’t develop a tail.

So what exactly is this “thing?” Well, we do know that 5.1 kilometer diameter Phaethon orbits like a comet, yet has the spectral signature of an asteroid. By studying photographs of the meteor showers, scientists have determined that the meteors are denser than cometary material, yet not as dense as asteroid fragments. This leads them to believe Phaethon is probably an extinct comet which has gathered a thick layer of interplanetary dust during its travels, yet retains the ice-like nucleus. Until we are able to take physical samples of this “mystery,” we may never fully understand what Phaethon is, but we can fully appreciate the annual display it produces!

Thanks to the wide path of the stream, folks the world over get an opportunity to enjoy the show of the Geminids. The traditional peak time is the night of the 13th into the morning of the 14th of December – as soon as the constellation of Gemini appears, around mid-evening. The radiant for the shower is near the bright star Castor, but meteors can originate from many points in the sky. From around 2 AM tonight until dawn (when our local sky window is aimed directly into the stream) it is possible to see about one “shooting star” every 30 seconds. The most successful of observing nights are ones where you are comfortable, so be sure to use a reclining chair or pad on the ground while looking up… And dress warmly! Please get away from light sources when possible – it will triple the amount of meteors you see.

In mythology, Gemini is associated with the myth of Castor and Polydeuces. The two brothers Castor and Pollux were twins, of course and no one could tell them apart. According to legend, they joined Jason’s expedition aboard the Argo to the Black Sea in search of the Golden Fleece. When the Argo stopped at the entrance to the King Amycus’ realm, the king challenged them to a boxing match – mainly because no one ever survived. The brothers were known to be fit and ready, so Pollux was the first Argonaut to take on the challenge. As soon as he got a clear shot, Pollux drove his fist into Amycus’ temple, crushing his skull and ended the battle. However, the tale ends rather sadly. Their final adventure took them to lands of Arcadia with two cousins (ex-Argonauts) to raid cattle. When their ill-gotten booty was divided, the cousins took the loot and ran. Of course, Castor and Pollux followed, taking a shortcut to wait. Unfortunately, a cousin discovered Castor first shot him. When Pollux avenged his brother, the other cousin knocked him unconscious with a rock and went in for the kill. Luckily, Zeus was watching and ended the ordeal with a thunderbolt. When Pollux regained consciousness and realized Castor was join, he begged Zeus to remove his immortality. Zeus granted his wish and placed the twins in the sky to remind us of all of brotherly love.

For binocular observers, Gemini has a wealth of treasures. But to find things, you’ve got to know your way around! Let’s start first with Alpha Geminorum – the “a” symbol on our map. This is Castor. Although it might look like just a single star in binoculars, it’s really quite an outstanding triple star system in a telescope. Here you will find two similar magnitude stars separated by just a few seconds of arc – and both of these stars are binary stars, too! The faint, distant orange star, Castor C, is also double star, consisting of nearly identical, low-mass M stars – red dwarfs – and either one, or both of these are flare stars. Pretty remarkable, huh?

Now, go look at brighter Beta Geminorum, the “B” symbol on our map. Pollux is the 17th brightest star in the sky, and this orange giant star is unusual, too. Here we have an X-ray emitter. Pollux has a hot, outer, magnetically supported corona perhaps similar to that surrounding our Sun. But that’s not all. Beta Geminorum has an orbiting planet! That’s right. A planet that’s nearly 3 times the size of Jupiter and orbits its sun about the same distance as Mars orbits ours. So, if we were there, how big would orange giant Pollux look in the sky? Try almost 6 times larger, and belting out 16 times more radiation. Sunblock 6000 anyone?

Our next target is Delta Geminorum – the “8” shape on our map. Delta goes by the traditional name of Wasat, which means middle. Thankfully, that’s right about where it’s positioned! Wasat is positioned very close to the ecliptic plane, so it is an important star to remember since it often gets occulted by the Moon. But that’s not all. Wasat is also a terrific double star, too. Take out the telescope and have a look at this soft white star with the disparate orange companion. It’s a tasty treat!

Now head further down the line for Gamma Geminorum – the “Y” shape on our map. It’s name is Almeisan and it is about 150 light years away from Earth. A binary star? You bet. The major star is a spectroscopic binary, but look for a faint optical companion, too. Hop across the constellation to Theta Geminorum, the “n” shape. Often called Nageba, this 200 light year distant Class A3 star is also a binary that can be split with a telescope. Look for components of magnitudes 3.60 and 5.18, separated by 2.9 arcseconds.

Last on our list of stars is Epsilon Geminorum, the backward “3”. It’s name is Mebsuta and it is about 900 light years away from our solar system. Mebsuta is a supergiant star of spectral class G5, and compared to our Sun, it’s 150 times larger. Like Delta on the other side of Gemini, Epsilon is also very near the ecliptic plane and can also be occulted by the Moon or planets. Be sure to also keep an eye on Zeta Geminorum, too! It is a cepheid variable star, with very nice magnitude changes from 3.62 to 4.18 every 10.15 days. Quite worth following!

Before you put away your binoculars, travel back to Theta and make the starhop to magnificent Messier 35. Also listed as NGC 2168, the awesome open star cluster was discovered by Philippe Loys de Chéseaux in 1745 and independently discovered by John Bevis before 1750. Progressively larger optics will reveal more and more stars… several hundred stars in an area about the size of the full moon. Perhaps 100 million years old, this collection of stellar gems contains several yellow and orange giant stars to delight the eye – but large telescopes will see something else. Located about 15 arc minutes southwest of M35 is another galactic cluster – NGC 2158. At low magnification, it will appear almost like a faint globular cluster – and with good reason. NGC 2158 is over 10 times older and over five times more remote than M35! About 50 arc minutes west from M35, faint, loose open cluster IC 2157 can also be found. For those with ultra-wide field eyepieces, you can often showcase all three objects in the same field of view!

For the telescope, there’s no place like NGC 2392 (RA 7:29; Dec 20:55) about 4 degrees east/southeast of Wasat. Better known as the “Eskimo Nebula”, this planetary nebula has a bright central region and the surrounding dim ring structure. Be sure to up the magnification in even a small telescope on this one. This stellar relic was first spied by William Herschel in 1787 and is a bubble of material being blown into space by the central star’s intense “wind” of high-speed material. Try adding a nebula filter to bring out different and subtle details!

Head now for NGC 2266 (RA 06 43.2 Dec +26 58). This open cluster is probably a billion years old – nearly all of its members evolved to the red giant star phase. From its position high above the galactic plane, low metallicity NGC 2266 has escaped the mixing of dusts and gases contained in the rest of the Milky Way and become the perfect laboratory for studying stellar evolution. Look for a relatively well compressed area of looping faint stars with a combined magnitude of near 10.

Care to try NGC 2420? You’ll find it located at RA 07 38.5 Dec +21 34. This near 8th magnitude galactic star cluster is rich in solar type stars – another scientific playground for learning about the origins and evolution of the Milky Way. With nearly 1000 stars packed densely together in a small region, NGC 2420 originally belonged to another small galaxy that was cannibalized by our own. With an estimated age of 1.7 billion years old, it remains a curiosity because it is moving rapidly through space – and because it hasn’t been tidally pulled apart by our galactic disc. Enjoy this unique view!

There are other star clusters to enjoy in the constellation of Gemini as well, so get a good star chart and enjoy your time with the “Twins”!

Sources: SEDS, Chandra Observatory
Charts Courtesy of Your Sky.