Aries (“the ram”) was a familiar sight to ancient civilizations, with this inconspicuous zodiacal constellation holding great importance on account of its location along the ecliptic. Aries was one of 48 constellations recorded by Greek astronomer Ptolemy in his treatise called Almagest (150AD), and in 1922 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) recognized it as one of the 88 official constellations. Interestingly it was only in 1930 that the outline of its boundaries were defined by Belgian astronomer Eugène Delporte.
Represents: Golden Fleece Ram
Although Aries is the 39th largest constellation in the sky and takes up an area of 441 square degrees, there is nothing in its shape that seems to justify such a large “surface area”. Furthermore, even the most ardent student of constellation shapes would be hard-pressed to identify a ram in the constellation, while practical-minded observers of Aries are likely to see nothing more than a kinked line made up of four moderately bright stars.
Location: Northern Constellation
Aries is a northern hemisphere constellation that can be observed from latitudes of between +90° and -60°, making it also visible to observers across much of the southern hemisphere. It can be found between Taurus to the east and Pisces to the west, near the “Great Square” of Pegasus. This constellation of the zodiac can also be located by following an imaginary line from Polaris in Ursa Minor past the star Segin in Cassiopeia, until you reach the Pleiades and the Great Square of Pegasus.
Best Seen: Winter/Spring
From the northern hemisphere, Aries is best seen in the winter and springtime, with the constellation culminating at about 10 p.m. local time during the last days of November, and again at about 8 p.m. local time in late December. During these times, Aries is visible for most of the night, but as it is not among the most conspicuous constellations, a dark sky is needed to see it best.
Meteor Showers: May Arietids
Although there are 5 meteor showers associated with Aries, only one, the May Arietids, is worth noting. The others, the Autumn Arietids, The Delta Arietids, The Epsilon Arietids, and The Daytime-Arietids are weak showers that produce no more than a few meteors per hour, and even then often in the daytime, when they are difficult to see.
– The May Arietids is arguably the strongest daytime meteor shower of all. It runs from May 22nd to July 2nd with a peak on June 7th when it typically produces about 60 meteors per hour, many of which are spectacular fireballs that enter the atmosphere at speeds of up to 39 km/sec. Don’t expect to see any, though, as they occur during the daytime in the direction of the Sun
Notable Stars: Hamal (2nd Magnitude)
Aries has no bright or particularly notable stars; in fact, the most distinctive feature of the principal stars in this constellation is their total lack of anything that makes them remarkable, except perhaps for the fact that Hamal (Alpha Arietis) once marked the position of the vernal equinox- which point now lies in Pisces. Below are a few more details of Aries’ principal stars:
– Hamal (Alpha Arietis), the most luminous star in Aries, is an orange giant (K2 III Ca-1) about 66 light years distant that has an apparent visual magnitude that varies between 1.98 and 2.04. It is roughly 15 times bigger than the Sun, with around twice its mass, and 91 times its brightness. Hamal derives from the Arabic for “head of the ram”.
– Sheratan (Beta Arietis), the second brightest star in Aries, is a white star dwarf located about 60 light years from the Sun that shines with an apparent visual magnitude of 2.64. It is actually a spectroscopic binary, though, with its companion suspected to be a Sun-like G-class star. Sheratan derives from the Arabic for “the two signs”, perhaps referring to two horns, and together with Gamma Arietis, Sheratan marked the position of the vernal equinox several thousand years ago.
– Bharani (41 Arietis), the constellation’s third brightest star, is a blue dwarf (B8Vn) situated 160 light years from our own solar system with an apparent visual magnitude of 3.61. It is almost twice the size of our sun, with 3 times its mass, and 126 times its luminosity.
– Botein (Delta Arietis) is an orange giant (K2IIIvar) that is situated 170 light years away. It is around 13 times bigger than the Sun and shines with an apparent visual magnitude of 4.35. Botein derives from the Arabic word meaning “the belly”.
Notable Objects: Several Galaxies
Although the few deep-sky objects (DSOs) in Aries are all very dim and difficult to find, they are nevertheless of some scientific interest. There are several spiral, elliptical, and even interacting galaxies in Aries, but only two objects are of interest to amateurs.
– NGC 772 (Arp 78) is an unbarred spiral galaxy that is 200,000 light-years across and situated 130 light years from Earth. It is found a few degrees to the southeastward of the star Beta Arietis, but With an apparent visual magnitude of 11.3, dark skies and large aperture telescopes are required to see NGC 772. In 2003, two supernovae (SN 2003 hl and SN 2993 iq) were observed in the galaxy over a three-week period. NGC 772 has several satellite galaxies surrounding it, including the elliptical galaxy NGC 770, which has an apparent magnitude of 14.2.
– NGC 1156 is an irregular, Magellanic- type dwarf galaxy with an apparent visual magnitude of 12.3. What distinguishes it from other, similar galaxies is the fact that its core is significantly larger than usual, and that there are large areas of contra-rotating gas in the galaxy, which suggests that NGC 1156 might have ingested a smaller galaxy in the distant past. Look for the galaxy a few degrees to the northwest of Delta Arietis.
Planets: 7 Stars with 10 Planets
As of 2017, Aries has 7 stars with 10 planets between them. One star, HIP 14810, which is a G5- type star, has three planets, all of which are only about ten times bigger than the Earth.
The Sun as viewed from Earth passes through Aries from April 19th to May 14th each year, but in astrology the Sun enters this zodiac constellation between March 21st and April 19th, marking the start of the astrological new year, and the vernal spring equinox when day and night are equal. Over time, precession has meant the vernal equinox now has the constellation Pisces as its backdrop, but the March equinox is still referred to as the first point of Aries. Other astrological associations are:
- Date of Birth: March 21 to April 19
- Sign Ruler: Mars
- Element: Fire
- Birth Stone: Emerald, diamond
- Metal: Iron
- Color: Red, Black, White.
- Characteristics: Energetic, honest, versatile, brave, adventurous
- Compatibility: Leo, Sagittarius
In classical Greek mythology, Aries is associated with the Golden Fleece. As the story goes, Phrixus and his sister, Helle, both children of a Boeotian king, were saved by a flying ram when their jealous stepmother, Ino, tried to have them killed as part of a plan to ingratiate herself further with king Athamas. During their escape on the ram, Helle fell off and was drowned in a spot that is today known as the Hellespont. Phrixus made it safely to the land of Colchis, where he showed gratitude to the hospitable King Aeëtes by sacrificing and skinning the ram in honor of its creator Poseidon, before giving the fleece to him as a gift. Aeëtes then placed the fleece in a nearby temple as an offering to the gods, but to everyone’s astonishment, it turned into solid gold during the night.
Later, king Pelias of Iolcus would challenge Jason and his Argonauts (including Castor and Pollux) to recover the now-golden fleece in a bloody campaign that cost many heroes their lives. Jason’s ship also accounts for several beautiful constellations in the southern sky, including Vela (“the sails”), which is the last part of the ship to sink below the horizon during the early evening hours in June; Puppis (“the poop”); Carina (“the keel”), and Pyxis (“the compass”).