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Last Chance to Catch the Little Ram

All winter long I've been meaning to write about the little constellation Aries the Ram, and finally on this last weekend of winter I'm getting around to it. It's a good thing because Aries is about to leave our night time sky as the Earth in its orbit around the sun turns away from that direction in space.

Right after evening twilight look for the distinctive little constellation in the low western sky. In fact, right now you can use the very bright planet Venus to help you find Aries. Venus isn't always parked by the little celestial ram because planets wander among the background of stars, but this particular month and year Venus is hunched right next to Aries. Just above Venus look for two moderately bright stars right next to each other that are diagonally orientated. Just below them and a little to the left is a third dimmer star.

Together, all three stars kind of-sort of resemble a ram's horn.The actual constellation is larger than that little horn you see, but most of the rest of the stars of Aries are really faint. The two brighter stars of the horn are Hamel and Sheratan, and the dimmer star below them is Mesarthim. Hamel is a giant star in our Milky Way galaxy that dwarfs our sun with a diameter of at least 13 million miles. Our own sun's diameter is less than one million miles. A trip to Hamal would require you to put about 65 light years on your spaceship. In case you're new to this column, just one light year equals nearly six trillion miles!

This is actually a good time of year to talk about Aries the ram because it has a very important astronomical past. Aries used to be the backdrop constellation the sun was in when it crosses into the northern sky on the Vernal Equinox, otherwise known as the first day of spring. The Vernal Equinox this year is coming Friday afternoon at 5:45. Because of the wobble in the Earth's axis, called precession, the constellation Aries is no longer in the background during the equinox. It's been replaced by the constellation Pisces the fish.

So how did Aries the ram get in the night sky? What's the story? Well like most constellation stories, or what I call celestial soap operas, it's a sordid tall tale.

Different cultures have different stories, but the one I like the most comes from Greek mythology. This old yarn is a story of heroism. Aries the ram was one of Zeus's many pets. Being the king of the Greek gods Zeus had many pets, but Aries was very special. He wasn't your everyday ram. His coat was made of golden fleece and he sported wings allowing him to fly the friendly skies above Mount Olympus. There was no fencing in this magic ram! Zeus wasn't exactly the type to be fenced in either. He wasn't really a faithful follower of the sanctity of marriage and had many girlfriends, even after he married Hera, the queen of the gods. Can you say dysfunctional??

Anyway, one lovely Mount Olympus afternoon Zeus and his favorite pet ram met several of Zeus's secret girl friends for a picnic in a hidden park close to the foot of Mount Olympus. It was quite a time for all concerned. Suddenly, out of the clear blue sky the voice of Apollo, the god of the sun, rang out. He was trying desperately to get the attention of Zeus, wherever he was. From the reins of his sun chariot high above everything, Apollo could see a group of small children a few miles away that were having a very unfriendly encounter with a really hungry lion.

What happened is that the kids slipped away from their mother at a nearby market place, and they became the number one choice on the lion's lunch menu that day. Apollo couldn't do anything himself, because if he left the sun chariot all you-know-what could break loose if the sun crashed to Earth. So the only thing Apollo could do is shout his lungs out for some divine help from Zeus. Finally, the king of the gods heard the screams of Apollo and decided to take action. It wasn't so much that he cared about the kids, but Zeus wanted to impress his posse of ladies. So Zeus pointed Aries in the right direction and sent him flying off on a rescue mission.

The lion was within seconds of reaching the children when out of the blue Aries swooped from the sky like a cruise missile. He scooped up the children on his back and flew them off to safety. Aries winged his way back to the local market place and reunited the kids with their greatly relieved mother.
For the rest of his life Aries set out on missions of mercy and rescue. When Aries died, Zeus rewarded him for his bravery and placed his body into the heavens to become the constellation we see today. The little ram did a lot of good!

It has nothing to do with this nice but far-fetched tale of heroism, but again, the first day of spring is this Friday. I'm guessing that ever since you were a wee lad or lassie you've been told that on the first day of spring, the vernal equinox, that days and nights were equal. Believe it or not, that's just not true. Because of astronomical refraction, or the bending of the sun's rays due to the Earth's atmosphere, days are already longer than night by this Friday. So when days and nights equal? This Tuesday, on St. Patrick's day. Yet another reason to celebrate that day!!

Diagram of constellation Aries...Click here