Pisces is a northern sky constellation and the 14th largest constellation in the sky. The name Pisces is the Latin plural for fish.
The vernal equinox is currently located in the constellation Pisces, though it’s slowly moving towards Aquarius. The vernal equinox is one of two dates that mark roughly equal lengths of day and night, and also marks the beginning of a new year in a few notable cultures. Therefore, contrary to what astrology says, Pisces could be considered the first constellation of the zodiac, not the last.
How to Locate Pisces
Pisces can be found in a region of the sky nicknamed the Sea, alongside other water-related constellations including Aquarius, Capricornus, Cetus, Delphinus, Eridanus, Hydra and Piscis Austrinus. Pisces is found in-between Aries, lying east of the constellation, and Aquarius.
The stars in Pisces are quite faint, and its form – the fish – is abstract. You may have some difficulty finding it if you are unsure of what to look for, but there is an asterism inside this constellation that will make it easier to spot.
The Circlet lies south of Pegasus. This ring of stars represents the western fish’s head. Since Pisces is so dim, you will need a dark sky to view it properly, but in little or no light pollution, the Circlet forms a distinct shape that is hard to miss.
You can also navigate to Pisces by using the Great Square of Pegasus or Andromeda as pointers. Pisces lies south of both of them.
The best time to view Pisces, regardless of the hemisphere that you’re in, is in November or December. It will reach its highest point in the sky at around 10 pm.
Pisces mythology and History
Pisces’ origin as a constellation can be traced to the Babylonians, who recognized it as two fish connected and held together by rope. Its myth, however, is said to belong to the Romans.
It is associated with Venus and Cupid. According to folklore, the couple tied themselves together with a chord before becoming fish, so they could hide away from a great monster, Typhon. In Greek mythology, the story is almost exactly similar, with only a few differing details. Here, it is Aphrodite and her son Eros who feature, but there are variations in where the legend stems from. In one version, just as in Roman mythology, the two transform into fish to hide away from Typhon. In another, they call to water nymphs for help and are rescued by two fish who carry them to safety.
Pisces is also associated with Christianity and Jesus. Though Christianity itself has no correlations to the constellation, many people believe that the two are connected. Reasons for this is that Jesus is said to have lived in the age of Pisces. He also feeds 5,000 people with only five loaves of bread and two fish – one of his miracles noted in the Bible.
Pisces is one of the constellations of the zodiac catalogued by 2nd century Greek astronomer Ptolemy.
Stars in the Constellation Pisces
Compared to other constellations in the zodiac, Pisces may be the most difficult to view with the naked eye, due mostly to its lack of bright stars. Its brightest star is magnitude 3.62. Still, it is a great constellation to observe with equipment. There are ten stars with known planets inside Pisces.
- Eta Piscium/ Kullat Nunu: The brightest in Pisces, Eta Piscium shines at a magnitude 3.62 and lies about 350 light-years away from Earth. The star is 26 times bigger, over 300 times more luminous, and roughly 4 times more massive than the Sun. This yellow giant star has a much dimmer companion. Its traditional name is Babylonian and describes the cord that holds the fish of Pisces together.
- Gamma Piscium: Gamma Piscium lies 138 light-years away and has an apparent magnitude of 3.7. The star is found in the Circlet – the asterism contained in Pisces which marks the one fish’s head. Gamma Piscium is thought to be about the same age as the Sun, though it is ten times bigger and 61 times more luminous than our Sun.
- Omega Piscium: This subgiant is a magnitude 4.0 yellow-white star. It lies over 104 light-years away from the Earth. There is a possibility that it is a binary star, but this has not been confirmed. If the star is not a binary, then it may well be twice as massive as our Sun and outshine the Sun by over 21 times.
- Alpha Piscium/ Alrescha: On the other hand we have Alpha Piscium, a confirmed binary star. Alpha Piscium and its component orbit one another over a period of several hundred years. The primary star’s visual magnitude is 4.33, while its companion is 5.23. Their combined apparent magnitude is 3.82. This star’s traditional name, Alrescha, is Arabic in origin and roughly means “well rope”. Other Arabic names for the star can also be translated to mean “knot”. Alpha Piscium is over 300 light years away from the Solar System.
- Delta Piscium: This is another binary star in Pisces. It has a magnitude of 4.42. The primary star, an orange giant, is over 40 times bigger than our Sun. The star is only 2 degrees outside the ecliptic and so the Moon occults it quite often. It is 305 light-years away from Earth.
- Van Maanen’s Star: Van Maanen’s Star was found by the Dutch-American astronomer in 1917, who the star is named for (Adriaan van Maanen). It is a white dwarf with a magnitude of 12.38. It is about 3 billion years old. Its mass is only 63 percent that of the Sun’s. There is strong evidence that Van Maanen’s Star contains heavier elements than helium (in other words, there is a higher presence of metals). It is also significant because it is the 3rd closest of its type of star to the Solar System. Van Maanen’s Star is some 14 light-years away.
- 54 Piscium: This star is a magnitude 5.88 orange dwarf. It is found over 35 light-years away from Earth. In 2002 it was discovered that 54 Piscium houses an exoplanet. A brown dwarf star also orbits 54 Piscium, and it was discovered in 2006.
Deep Sky Objects in Pisces
Though most of the stars in Pisces are dim, there is a variety of fascinating deep sky objects found within it. It has an abundance of galaxies that are a treat if you have a telescope. There is one Messier Object to observe too.
- Messier 74/ NGC 628: M74 is a magnitude 10 spiral galaxy that is viewed face-on from Earth. It has got two distinct spiral arms and is one of the best examples of what a spiral galaxy looks like. Magnitude 10 may not seem like too dim an object to view through a small telescope, but M74 is one of the most difficult Messier objects to observe with amateur instruments. This is due to the galaxy’s low surface brightness. There are an estimated billion stars inside it, and it lies 30 million light-years away from Earth.
M74 also stands out for the supernovae it houses: two have been found inside galaxy thus far. The first was a rare hypernovae. The second was a very strong x-ray source which suggests it is likely a black hole. M74 is one of the faintest Messier Objects and is difficult for amateur astronomers to locate or observe. The French astronomer Pierre Méchain discovered it, and he informed Charles Messier about his discovery to have it included in the famous catalogue.
- NGC 383/ 3C 31: This is a radio galaxy that lies nearly 210 million light-years from Earth. It’s an active galaxy and a bright radio source because of the supermassive black hole found at its center. The supermassive black hole causes the galaxy’s jets to stretch out into space, spanning more than a million light-years. The galaxy has a magnitude of 13.4.
- Pisces Dwarf/ PGC 3792: The Pisces Dwarf belongs to the Local Group, along with the Milky Way and several other galaxies, and is an irregular dwarf galaxy. The Pisces Dwarf may be a satellite galaxy (its parent galaxy would be Messier 33). The Pisces Dwarf is 2.51 million light-years away and was discovered by Russian astronomer Valentina E. Karachentseva in 1976. The rate of the galaxy’s star formation has been declining for the last few billion years. Regardless, hot, young stars are still found in clusters in the Pisces Dwarf’s outer region.
- Arp 284/ NGC 7714 and NGC 7715: NGC 7714 and NGC 7715 are a couple of interacting galaxies. The first is a magnitude 12.2 while the latter is unconfirmed, but may be a spiral or irregular galaxy.
- NGC 474: Though there is not too much information confirmed regarding this elliptical galaxy, it is noted for the thin and far reaching stretch of stars and gas that extend from the galaxy. These are called tidal tails. The galaxy is 100 million or more light-years away.
- NGC 60: This is another spiral galaxy, though quite distinct due to its distorted arms. What is unusual about this galaxy is that distortions in spiral arms are thought to be a result of interferences by nearby galaxies, but there are none close enough to effect NGC 60. NGC 60 has a magnitude of 14.85 and is found 500 million light-years away from Earth.
Pisces may not be the most distinguishable constellation, but it has a long and rich history both in astronomy and in many cultures. It certainly offers a gem or two to look at on a clear, dark night.