The Ram of the Golden
is not considered a
constellation of springtime, for the main stars of Aries cross
the meridian at 11 p.m. in early November, and 7 p.m. in early
January. The most convenient time for observation is in the fall;
and in May this constellation is one of pre-dawn hours. Nevertheless,
Aries is associated with the beginning of spring since in the
ancient world the Sun entered the constellation at the time of
the spring equinox. Thus Aries is the first of the Zodiac star
groupsthe Prince of all the signs.
The Greeks associated
the constellation with the story of the Argonauts and the Golden
Fleece. The early Chinese called it the Dog; later they knew it
as the White Sheep; and with the stars of Taurus and Gemini, these
stars were the White Tiger, the western one of the four great
zodiac groups of China.
These four quarters of
the ancient Chinese sky were occupied by four great celestial
beasts, and they were also symbols for east, south, west and north.
The four animals were the White Tiger, signifying autumn, the
Black Tortoise of winter, the Dragon of spring and the Red Bird
of summer. Each in turn through the year directed the universe,
and it was not so much that these stars distinguished the seasons
as that these creatures caused them. Thus the Dragon fought and
conquered the Tortoise; and when the White Tiger doomed the Red
Bird, it symbolized the death of nature, the falling of leaves,
and the first sadness of frost. Here, then, is the explanation
of why in China the color of mourning is not black, but the white
of the sad, autumnal White Tiger.
There are only nine naked
eye-stars in Aries of magnitude 5 or brighter. The constellation
is readily found by looking west from the Pleiades. The lucidathe
brightest star in a constellationis magnitude 2.2 Hamal.
This star, Alpha Arietis, together with Beta and Gamma, identifies
the triangular head of the proverbial ram. Another triangle of
stars, comprised of 35, 39 and 41 Arietis, was once known as the
asterism Musca Borealis, the Northern Fly, which hovered over
the ram's rump. However, this fly was swatted in the 1800s, and
the one celestial fly remaining is the constellation Musca in
the Southern Hemisphere.
In the 1980s, Aries was
in the news as the location of the Aries Flasher,
an ephemeral and peculiar object observed by several amateur astronomers,
appearing as a bright flash lasting from one to three seconds
in duration. It could not be identified as an astronomical object,
because nothing known had a similar brightness or period. The
object was finally determined to be a reflection off an artificial
satellite. Some satellites with apogees on the order of 700 miles
altitude move so slowly that they appear almost motionless for
a few minutes.
Of several deep-sky objects
located in Aries, NGC 772 is the best for smaller telescopes.
It is a spiral galaxy seen in about three-quarters view. It measures
about 5 by 7 arcminutes and is about magnitude eleven.
Many beautiful double
stars are found in Aries. Mesarthim, Gamma Arietis, is a pair
of blue-white stars of equal 4.8 magnitude, separated by 8 arcseconds.
This was the first double star to be so identified. The keen and
versatile, yet controversial, scientist and astronomer Robert
Hooke was following a comet in 1664 when he noticed this fine
double star in his telescope's field of view. The two stars are
aligned exactly north-south in the sky.