What Constellation is the Sun in?

Since ancient times, astronomers have organized the stars into various constellations. We have the Big Dipper (Ursa Major), Orion the Hunter, and his “Greater Dog” and “Lesser Dog”(Canis Major and Canis Minor). And those are just some of the better-known ones. But have you ever wondered if the Sun belongs to one of these collections of stars?

The simple answer is that – in accordance with both ancient astrological tradition and modern astronomy – the Sun technically has no constellation. But if you were to change locations and travel to a new star system, you would then be able to view the Sun as we do other distant collection of stars. Unfortunately, depending on where you are, the answer would change.

The Zodiac:

First, let us consider the astrological answer to this question. Unless you were born prior to the Scientific Revolution – during which time Nicolaus Copernicus proposed the heliocentric model of the Solar System – you know that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Over the course of a year, the position of the stars changes as the Earth’s position relative to the Sun changes.

A chart of the constellations and signs that make up the zodiac. Credit: NASA

During the year, the Sun passes through each of the constellations of the Zodiac. For example, in August, the Sun is in Leo, and then in September, the Sun is in Virgo. Your astrological sign is based on this. What this means is that the Sun is part of each constellation of the Zodiac over the course of a single year, so it can’t be said to be in any single constellation.

However, astrology is an obsolete and entirely unscientific practice. And if someone were to ask which constellation the Sun is in, surely they are seeking an answer that was astronomical (and not astrological) in nature. For that, we must consider what the constellations are in scientific terms.

The 88 Constellations:

Since ancient times, astronomers and scholars have been keeping track of “asterisms” (aka. constellations) in the night sky. By definition, these are collections of stars that, when viewed from Earth, appear in the same general area as each other night after night. In reality, they are actually located in very different locations, and can sometimes be up to thousands of light-years away from each other.

During the 2nd century CE, Hellenistic astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (Ptolemy) organized the constellations into a single treatise. This treatise, known as the Almagest, was the definitive source on Greek astronomy, and contained the names and meanings of the then-known 48 constellations. For over a thousand years, this work would remain canon for European and Islamic Astronomers.

The modern constellations. color-coded by family, with a dotted line denoting the ecliptic. Credit: NASA/Scientific Visualization Studio

Thanks to the Scientific Revolution and “Age of Exploration” – ca. 15th to 18th centuries CE – astronomers became aware of many more constellations. This was due to extensive overseas exploration, which brought European traders, explorers and waves of colonization to the Southern Hemisphere, East Asia and the Americas.

By 1922, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) officially divided the celestial sphere into 88 constellations. Of these, 36 lie predominantly in the northern sky while the other 52 lie predominantly in the southern. While it would take years to work out the exact delineation between these constellations, and many corresponded to their Greco-Roman predecessors, these 88 modern constellations would remain in use until this day.

However, these constellations divide up the night sky based on how it is viewed from Earth. Once again, our Sun cannot be considered to lie in any one of them because – relative to the Earth-bound observer – it passes through them. Alas, the only way to answer this question is to change our perspective.

From Other Star Systems:

If you could move away to another star, then our Sun would indeed appear to be part of the background stars. For example, if you were to travel to a planet orbiting the nearest star to the Solar System – Alpha Centauri (aka. Rigil Kentaurus) – then the Sun would indeed appear to be part of a constellation.

Artist’s impression of the Earth-like exoplanet orbiting Alpha Centauri B Credit: ESO

To be scientifically accurate, let us consider a planet that we actually know of. This would be the rocky extrasolar planet recently discovered around Proxima Centauri, which is known as Proxima b. Viewed from the surface of this planet, the Sun would appear to be part of the Cassiopeia constellation. However, rather than forming a W shape, our Sun would form a sixth point on its “western” end, making it look like a mountain chain (or a scribbled line).

But if you went to a different star system, the Sun’s position would change, depending on the direction. As such, the Sun really isn’t in any constellation per se. But then again, none of the other stars that make up the Milky Way are either. Much like what Einstein’s Theory of Relativity teaches us about space and time, the constellations themselves are relative to the observer.

We have written many interesting articles about the Sun and the constellations here at Universe Today. Here’s What are the Constellations?, Zodiac Signs and their Dates?, Where is the Sun?, and Earth’s Orbit Around the Sun.

For more information on how our Sun looks from Alpha Centauri, be sure to check out this page from Learn Astronomy. SAnd here’s an article about all 88 recognized constellations.

Astronomy Cast also has episodes on the subject. Here’s Episode 30: The Sun, Spots and All and Episode 157: Constellations.


The Constellation Capricornus

Welcome back to Constellation Friday! Today, in honor of the late and great Tammy Plotner, we will be dealing with the “Sea Goat” – aka. Capricornus!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of all the then-known 48 constellations. This treatise, known as the Almagest, would be used by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come, effectively becoming astrological and astronomical canon until the early Modern Age.

One of these constellations is Capricornus, otherwise known as the “Sea Goat” (or simply as Capricorn). Positioned on the ecliptic plane, this constellation is one of the 12 constellations of the Zodiac, and is bordered by Aquarius, Aquila, Sagittarius, Microscopium and Piscis Austrinus. Today, it is one of the 88 modern constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union.

Name and Meaning:

The name Capricornus is derived from Latin, which translates to “goat horn” or “horns of the goat”.  This arises from the fact that representations dating back to the Middle Bronze Age consistently depict the constellation as a hybrid of a goat and fish. This may be due to the fact that at that time, the northern hemisphere’s Winter Solstice occurred while the sun was in Capricorn.

Mesopotamian low relief depicting Sumerian sun-god Shamash rising in the center. From left to right, he is flanked by Ninurta (thunderstorms),  Ishtar (morning star), Enki (water) and Usmu (Enki’s vizier). Credit: britannica.com

The concern for the Sun’s rebirth might have rendered astronomical and astrological observation of this region of space very important. For the same reason, the Sun’s most southerly position, which is attained at the northern hemisphere’s winter solstice, is now called the Tropic of Capricorn, a term which also applies to the line on Earth where the Sun is directly overhead at noon on that solstice.

The earliest recorded evidence of this constellation is dated to the 21st century BCE, where the “Sea Goat” was depicted on a Sumerian cylinder-seal. In the Babylonian star catalogues, which are dated to ca. 1000 BCE, Capricornus was named suhurmašu (“The Goat Fish”). The constellation would later become the symbol of Ea (Enki) and was associated with the winter solstice.

In Greek mythology, the constellation was sometimes identified as Amalthea, the goat that suckled Zeus after Rhea saved him from Cronos. The goat’s broken horn was transformed into the cornucopia or horn of plenty, and ancient sources claim that this derives from the sun “taking nourishment” while in the constellation, in preparation for its climb back northward.

However, the constellation is often depicted as a sea-goat (i.e. a goat with a fish’s tail). One myth that deals with this says that when the goat-god Pan was attacked by the monster Typhon, he dived into the Nile. The parts of him that were above the water remained a goat, but those under the water transformed into a fish.

Johannes Hevelius’ depiction of Capricornus, from Uranographia (1690). Credit: chandra.harvard.edu

The Greeks regarded the constellation area with an alternative interpretation, namely the Augean Stable – a stable full uncleanliness – representing the concept of sin accumulated during the year. The Aquarius constellation, who was said to have poured out a river, then represent the yearly cleaning rains, associating to one of The Twelve Labors of Hercules.

History of Observation:

Despite being a faint constellation, Capricornus is one of the oldest recognized constellations. As with the other constellations associated with the Zodiac, Capricornus was catalogued by Ptolemy in the 2nd century CE and included in his treatise the Almagest. Despite its faintness, the constellation has also been recognized by other cultures around the world.

For example, in Chinese astronomy, Capriconus lies in The Black Tortoise of the North, one of the four symbols of the Chinese constellations. In 1922, Capricornus included in the list of 88 modern constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union.

Capricornus as a sea-goat, from Urania’s Mirror (1825). Credit: US Library of Congress/
Sidney Hall

Notable Features:

In terms of stars few bright stars or Deep Sky Objects. It’s brightest star is also not its primary, but Delta Capricorni. Also known as its traditional names Deneb Algedi and Sheddi (from the Arabic danab al-jady, “the tail of the goat”), this magnitude 2.85 star is actually a four-star system located approximately 39 light years from Earth. Its brightest star (Delta Capricorni A) being a white giant with a luminosity 8.5 times that of the Sun.

It’s second brightest star, Beta Capricorni, is also known by the traditional name Dabih – which comes from the Arabic al-dhibii (which means “the butcher”). Located 328 light years way, this star system consists of Dabih Major (Beta-1) and Dabih Minor (Beta-2); both of which is actually composed of multiple stars – Beta-1 is composed of a three stars while Beta-2 is a double star.

It’s primary star, Alpha Capricorni, is also known as Algiedi (or Algedi), which is derived from the Arabic al-jady (“the billy goat”.) It is composed of two star systems, Prima Giedi (Alpha-2 Capricorni) and Secunda Giedi (Alpha-2 Capricorni); the former being a double star located 690 light-years away, and the latter is a G-type yellow giant 109 light years away.

The only Deep Sky Object associated with this constellation is Messier 30, a globular cluster located approximately 28,000 light years from Earth. This cluster is currently approaching us at a speed of about 180 km per second, and was one of the first Deep Sky Objects discovered by Charles Messier in 1764 (and included in The Messier Catalog).

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

Finding Capricornus:

The constellation is located in an area of sky called the Sea or Water, consisting of many watery constellations such as Aquarius, Pisces, and Eridanus. For binocular observers, the best place to start is to the northwestern corner first to find Alpha Capricorni. This is an absolutely beautiful optical double star that goes by the traditional name of Algiedi. The more western of the pair is Alpha¹ Capricorni, or Prima Giedi.

Put a telescope on it, because Prima Giedi is a true binary star. Located 690 light years from Earth, Alpha¹ Capricorni A, is a yellow G-type supergiant with an apparent magnitude of +4.30. Its companion, Alpha¹ Capricorni B, is an eighth magnitude star, separated by 0.65 arcseconds from the primary. Now go back and look at Alpha² Capricorni, aka. Secunda Giedi. Alpha² Capricorni is a yellow G-type giant with an apparent magnitude of +3.58.

For even more fun, aim your telescope all the way across the constellation at the northeastern corner for Delta Capricorni. Now you’re in for a real treat because Deneb Algedi is a a quaternary star system. Located 39 light years away, Delta Capricorni A, is classified a white giant star of the spectral type “A”. The system is a spectroscopic binary whose two components are of magnitude +3.2 and +5.2, and separated by 0.0018 arc seconds.

Similar to Algol, Delta Capricorni A is an eclipsing binary. Its unresolved companion orbits with Capricorni A around their common centre of mass every 1.022768 days, causing the brightness to drop 0.2 magnitudes during eclipses. Two other stars are thought to orbit further out in the system. The sixteenth magnitude Delta Capricorni C is one arc minute away, while the thirteenth magnitude Delta Capricorni D is two arc minutes away from the primary.

Location of the constellation Capricornus. Credit: IAU/Sky&Telescope magazine

Now go back to binoculars and hop one bright star west to take a look at Gamma Capricorni. Nashira, or “the bearer of good news” is one of those really cool stars right on the ecliptic that’s often occulted by the Moon. Gamma Capricorni is also a blue-white A-type (A7III) giant star with a mean apparent magnitude of +3.69. It is approximately 139 light years from Earth.

It is classified as an Alpha2 Canum Venaticorum type variable star and its brightness varies by 0.03 magnitudes. Now, go right in the center for Theta. It’s name is Dorsum – the Latin word for “Back”. Theta Capricorni is a white A-type main sequence dwarf with an apparent magnitude of +4.08. It is approximately 158 light years from our solar system. Want more viewing opportunities? Then go back west with binoculars and look at Beta.

Now, keep your binoculars handy and use the chart to help you located Messier 30. This one is rather hard to see in binoculars. But with a telescope, its stars can be resolved. It’s brightest red giant stars are about of apparent visual magnitude 12.1, its horizontal branch giants at magnitude 15.1. Only about 12 variable stars have been found in this globular cluster.

The core of M30 exhibits an extremely dense stellar population, and has undergone a core collapse. Despite its compressed core, close encounters of the member stars of globular cluster M30 seem to have occurred comparatively rare, as it appears to contain only few X-ray binary stars.

The NGC 6907 spiral galaxy, located in the direction of the Capricornus constellation. Credit: NOAO/KPNO

For more advanced telescope observing, try the NGC 7103 galaxy group (RA 21 39 51 Dec -22 28 24). Averaging about 15th magnitude elliptical is extremely faint and a definite big scope challenge. It pairs with NGC 7104, which is also 15th magnitude and has no classification. More realistically, try NGC 6907 (RA 20 25 1 Dec -24 49).

At slightly fainter than magnitude 11, this classy spiral galaxy shows some nice arm structure to even mid-sized telescopes. Why? Because it is doing a little galaxy interaction with background lenticular galaxy NGC 6908. This pair of spirals is engaging in some galaxy cannibalism! This act has caused some nice supernovae events within recent history and makes for some great observing – as well as astro-imaging opportunities!

The constellation of Capricornus also has a meteor shower associated with it. The Capricornid meteor stream peaks on or about July 30 and is active about a week before and after that date. The average fall rate is about 10 to 30 per hour and it is know to produce bolides.

We have written many interesting articles about the constellation here at Universe Today. Here is What Are The Constellations?What Is The Zodiac?, and Zodiac Signs And Their Dates.

Be sure to check out The Messier Catalog while you’re at it!

For more information, check out the IAUs list of Constellations, and the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space page on Canes Venatici and Constellation Families.


The Canes Venatici Constellation

Welcome back to Constellation Friday! Today, in honor of the late and great Tammy Plotner, we will be dealing with Canes Venatici constellation.

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of the then-known 48 constellations. His treatise, known as the Almagest, would be used by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come. Today, this list has been expanded to include the 88 constellations recognized by the IAU.

One of these is known as Canes Venatici, a small northern constellation that is bordered by Ursa Major to the north and west, Coma Berenices to the south, and Boötes to the east. Canes Venatici belongs to the Ursa Major family of constellations, along with Boötes, Camelopardalis, Coma Berenices, Corona Borealis, Draco, Leo Minor, Lynx, Ursa Major, and Ursa Minor.

Name and Meaning:

The small northern constellation of Canes Venatici represents the hunting dogs – Chara and Asterion – of Boötes. It is also one of three constellations that represent dogs, along with Canis Major and Canis Minor. Given its comparatively recent origin, there is no real mythology associated with this asterism. However, it does have an interesting history.

Canes Venatici depicted in Hevelius's star atlas. Note that, per the conventions of the time, the image is mirrored. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Atlas Coelestis
Canes Venatici depicted in Hevelius’s star atlas. Note that, per the conventions of the time, the image is mirrored. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Atlas Coelestis

History of Observation:

During Classic Antiquity, the stars of Canes Venatici did not appear very brightly in the night sky. As such, they were listed by Ptolemy as unfigured stars below the constellation Ursa Major in the Almagest, rather than as a distinct constellation. During the Middle Ages, the identification of these stars as being the dogs of Boötes arose due to a mistranslation.

Some of the component stars in the nearby constellation of Boötes (which was known as the “herdsman”) were traditionally described as representing his cudgel. When the Almagest was translated from Greek to Arabic, the translator – the Arab astronomer Hunayn ibn Ishaq – did not know the Arabic word for cudgel.

As such, he chose the closest translation in Arabic – “al-`asa dhat al-kullab” -which literally means “the spearshaft having a hook” (possibly in reference to a shepherd’s crook). When the Arabic text was later translated into Latin, the translator mistook the Arabic word “kullab” for “kilab” – which means “dogs” – and wrote the name as hastile habens canes (“spearshaft having dogs”).

This representation of Boötes having two dogs remained popular and became official when, in 1687, Johannes Hevelius decided to designate them as a separate constellation. The northern of the two hunting dogs was named Asterion (‘little star’) while the southern dog was named Chara – from the Greek word for ‘joy’,.

Canes Venatici can be seen in the orientation they appear to the eyes in this 1825 star chart from Urania's Mirror. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Library of Congress
Canes Venatici can be seen in the orientation they appear to the eyes in this 1825 star chart from Urania’s Mirror. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Library of Congress

Notable Features:

The constellation’s brightest star is Cor Caroli, which is perhaps one of the most splendid of all colorful double stars. The name literally means “Charles’ heart”, and was named by Sir Charles Scarborough in honor of Charles I – who was executed in the aftermath of the English Civil War. The star is also associated with Charles II of England, who was restored to the throne after the interregnum following his father’s death.

Cor Caroli is a binary star with a combined apparent magnitude of 2.81 which marks the northern vertex of the Diamond of Virgo asterism. The two stars are 19.6 arc seconds apart and are easily resolved in small telescopes and steady binoculars. The system lies approximately 110 light years from Earth. It’s main star, a² Canum Venaticorum, is the prototype of a class of Spectral Type A0 variable stars (the so-called a² Canum Venaticorum stars).

These stars have a strong stellar magnetic field, which is believed to produce starspots of enormous extent. Due to these starspots, the brightness of a² Canum Venaticorum stars varies considerably during their rotation. Their brightness also varies between magnitude +2.84 and +2.98 with a period of 5.47 days.  The companion, a¹ Canum Venaticorum (a spectral type F0 star), is considerably fainter at +5.5 magnitude.

Y CVn, and a simulation of what it would look like close-up, created using Celestia. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Kirk39
Y CVn, “La Superba”, and a simulation of what it would look like close-up, created using Celestia. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Kirk39

Next up is Y Canum Venaticorum (Y CVn), which was named “La Superba” by 19th century astronomer Angelo Secchi for its uncommonly beautiful red color. This name was certainly appropriate, since it is  one of the reddest stars in the sky, and one the brightest of the giant red “carbon stars”.

La Superba is the brightest J-star in the sky, a very rare category of carbon stars that contain large amounts of carbon-13. Its surface temperature is believed to be about 2800 K (~2526 °C; 4580 °F), making it one of the coldest  true stars known. Its appearance, temperature and composition are all indications that it is currently in the Red Giant phase of its life-cycle.

Y CVn is almost never visible to the naked eye since most of its output is outside the visible spectrum. Yet, when infrared radiation is considered, Y CVn has a luminosity 4400 times that of the Sun, and its radius is approximately 2 AU. If it were placed at the position of our sun, the star’s surface would extend beyond the orbit of Mars.

Canes Venatici is also home to several Deep Sky Objects. For starters, there’s the tremendous globular cluster known as Messier 3 (M3). Messier 3 has an apparent magnitude of 6.2, making it visible to the naked eye. It was first resolved into stars by William Herschel around 1784. This cluster is one of the largest and brightest, made up of around 500,000 stars, and is located about 33,900 light-years away from our solar system.

The 51st entry in Charles Messier's famous catalog is perhaps the original spiral nebula--a large galaxy with a well defined spiral structure also cataloged as NGC 5194. Over 60,000 light-years across, M51's spiral arms and dust lanes clearly sweep in front of its companion galaxy, NGC 5195. Image data from the Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys was reprocessed to produce this alternative portrait of the well-known interacting galaxy pair. The processing sharpened details and enhanced color and contrast in otherwise faint areas, bringing out dust lanes and extended streams that cross the small companion, along with features in the surroundings and core of M51 itself. The pair are about 31 million light-years distant. Not far on the sky from the handle of the Big Dipper, they officially lie within the boundaries of the small constellation Canes Venatici. Image Credit: NASA
Messier 51, aka. the Whirlpool Galaxy, is a spiral nebula – a large galaxy with a well defined spiral structure located over 60,000 light-years across. Credit: NASA

Then there’s the Whirlpool Galaxy, also known as Messier 51 or NGC 5194. This  interacting, grand-design spiral galaxy is located at a distance of approximately 23 million light-years from Earth. It is one of the most famous spiral galaxies in the night sky, for both its grace and beauty. The galaxy and its companion (NGC 5195) are easily observed by amateur telescopes, and the two galaxies may even be seen with larger binoculars.

Canes Venatici is also home of the Sunflower Galaxy (aka. Messier 63 and NGC 5055), an unbarred spiral galaxy consisting of a central galactic disc surrounded by many short spiral arm segments. It is part of the M51 galaxy group, which also includes the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51). In the mid-1800s, Lord Rosse identified the spiral structure within the galaxy, making this one of the first galaxies in which “spiral nebulae” were identified.

Now hop over to the barred spiral galaxy known as Messier 94 for some comparison. It was discovered by Pierre Méchain in 1781 and catalogued by Charles Messier two days later. Although some references describe M94 as a barred spiral galaxy, the “bar” structure appears to be more oval-shaped. The galaxy is also notable in that it has two ring structures, an inner ring with a diameter of 70″ and an outer ring with a diameter of 600″.

These rings appear to form at resonance locations within the disk of the galaxy. The inner ring is the site of strong star formation activity and is sometimes referred to as a starburst ring. This star formation is fueled by gas that is dynamically driven into the ring by the inner oval-shaped bar-like structure.

Messier 63, also known as the Sunflower Galaxy, seen here in a new image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA/HST
Messier 63, also known as the Sunflower Galaxy, seen here in an image from the  Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA/HST

For a completely different galaxy, try Messier 106 (NGC 4258). This spiral galaxy is about 22 to 25 million light-years away from Earth. It is also a Seyfert II galaxy, which means that due to x-rays and unusual emission lines detected, it is suspected that part of the galaxy is falling into a supermassive black hole in the center. Nearby NGC 4217 is a possible companion galaxy.

The constellation does not have any stars with known planets, and there is one meteor shower associated with the constellation – the Canes Venaticids.

Finding Canes Venatici:

While it basically consists of only two bright stars, the Canes Venatici constellation is still fairly easy to locate and is bordered by Ursa Major, Boötes and Coma Berenices. It can be spotted with the naked eye on a clear night where light conditions are favorable. However, for those using binoculars, finderscopes and small telescopes, the constellation has much to offer the amateur astronomer and stargazer.

The location of the Canes Venatici constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky&Telescope magazine
The location of the Canes Venatici constellation. Credit: IAU/Sky&Telescope magazine

It’s brightest star, Cor Calroli can be found at RA 12h 56m 01.6674s Dec +38° 19′ 06.167″, while beautiful Y Canum Venaticorum (aka. “La Superba”) can be seen at RA 12f 45m 07s Dec +45° 26′ 24″. And M51 is easy to find by following the easternmost star of the Big Dipper, Eta Ursae Majoris, and going 3.5° southeast. Its declination is +47°, so it is circumpolar for observers located above 43°N latitude.

We have written many interesting articles about the constellation here at Universe Today. Here is What Are The Constellations?What Is The Zodiac?, and Zodiac Signs And Their Dates.

Be sure to check out The Messier Catalog while you’re at it!

For more information, check out the IAUs list of Constellations, and the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space page on Canes Venatici and Constellation Families.


The Aquarius Constellation

Welcome back to Constellation Friday! Today, we will be dealing with one of the best-known constellations, that “watery” asterism and section of the sky known as Aquarius. Cue the soundtrack from Hair!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of all the-then known constellations. This work (known as the Almagest) would remain the definitive guide to astronomy and astrology for over a thousand years. Among the 48 constellations listed in this book was Aquarius, a constellation of the zodiac that stretches from the celestial equator to the southern hemisphere.

Also known as the “Water Carrier”, Aquarius is bordered by Pegasus, Equuleus and Delphinus at the north, Aquila to the west, Capricornus to the south-west, Piscis Austrinus and Sculptor to the south, Cetus to the east and Pisces to the north-east. Today, it is one of the 88 constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), and is perhaps the most referenced and recognized of all the constellation.

Continue reading “The Aquarius Constellation”