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Constellation of the Month, November 2002

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This month we delve back into the realm of the Zodiac. A question that is often asked by neophyte stargazers is "When can I see the constellation of my birth sign?" Most people think that Zodiac signs are best seen in the months that they represent. Actually, the opposite is true. During late January and February, the sun is actually in the constellation of Aquarius; therefore we are unable to see the background stars. The sun travels along the Ecliptic, which on the above map is the solid orange line. The answer to the above question, then, is that any given Zodiac sign is best seen in the night sky 4 or 5 months before. This means that Aquarius is best viewed in November, Pisces in December, and so on.

Aquarius is made up of fairly dim stars, so it can be hard to find. Here's a tip: Face south and use the bright star Fomalhaut (bottom left of the map). This star stands out as the only bright star in this part of the sky, low to the horizon. Then look up (way up), nearly overhead, and find the Square of Pegasus. The bulk of Aquarius, one of the largest constellations, lies between Fomalhaut and the Great Square Also, see if you can find the 3 stars of the Water Jug.

The figure of Aquarius the Water Bearer is supposed to represent a person bending over, pouring a bucket of water. Considering that the constellation under (or south) of Aquarius is Piscis Austrinus (the southern fish), this is quite appropriate! In the above map, the person seems to have an enormous head, and a long neck between the stars a and b. In one arm is the Water Jug, and the legs go down towards Fomalhaut. Finally, we come to a very interesting asterism which I have nicknamed "The Shoes". There are actually 3 of them (the third is to the left). The shoes are 3 groups of 3 stars remarkably similar in brightness. But they are faint, and you probably won't be able to see the Shoes unless you have dark skies and a clear horizon.

Aquarius is such a large, sprawling constellation that I have created 3 Zoom Maps to illustrate where the interesting objects are. The approximate regions of each map are shown above. Also, pay special attention to 253 and 288. These numbers are NGC catalog designations. 253 is a spectacular edge-on galaxy, and 288 is a faint globular cluster. It will take a moderate size telescope to see these objects. Unfortunately there are no bright stars near these objects, so the best way to find them is to use the star a Sculptoris, and hop approximately 3 degrees north to 288. 253 is another couple degrees to the northwest. More info about NGC 253 and NGC 288. Also see our Image of this area.

Zoom Map 1
Zoom Map 2
Zoom Map 3

The "SGP" in the above image stands for South Galactic Pole. The cross marks the point in the sky that is 90 degrees from the Galactic Equator, which runs through the constellations Cassiopeia, Cygnus, and Sagittarius among others. The region around the SGP is star poor, and allows us to look out of our own galaxy and see others, like NGC 253.

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