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Like Argonauts of Old You Can Find a Golden Fleece Among the Stars

+ Von Del Chamberlain +

This is the first in a series of explorations along the zodiac, the region in the sky where we always find the Sun, Moon and planets. We begin by following a historical precedent. In the second century BC the Greek astronomer Hipparchus set up the system for measuring positions of stars and other fixed objects in the heavens. He established as his starting point the location of one of two places where the Sun crossed the "celestial equator," an extension of Earth's equator out into the sky. Thus, the vernal equinox, where the Sun stood at the beginning of spring, became the reckoning point for the heavens.

During Hipparchus' time this was located in the constellation Aries, the Ram. This fact of history gave everlasting fame to one of the smallest and dimmest constellations of the zodiac. From that time hence, even though the vernal equinox slowly drifts along the ecliptic, it has been referred to as the "First Point of Aries." This could get confusing if we forget its historical origin, for the "First Point of Aries--the vernal equinox--is currently in the constellation Pisces, the Fishes, just west of Aries.

There are several mythological stories involving Aries. It is said, for example, that this was the ram Zeus transformed into in order to escape giants pursuing him. The most famous legend of all, however, is that of Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece.

The story begins in Thessaly with Phrixus and Helle, Children of Athamas, King in Boeotia. Their stepmother mistreated these boys, so merciful Hermes (Mercury) sent them a ram with Golden Fleece, which they rode away upon, sailing through the air to cross the sea. Helle fell in mid-flight, over the strait between Europe and Asia, drowning in the sea which thereby acquired the name "Hellespont" (near the Dardanelles). When Phrixus landed safely in Colchis at the East End of the Black Sea, he sacrificed the ram to Zeus (Jupiter) and gave the Fleece to Aeetes, King of that land, who placed it in a sacred grove guarded by a dragon that never slept. Later, believing that Phrixus' ghost wanted the radiant golden hide recovered, Jason and fifty of the foremost heroes of the time (including Castor and Polydeuces, who we will meet in a couple of months in this column) built a ship and mounted an expedition for the purpose of acquiring the legendary Fleece. Amid trial and turmoil, which included slaying the fire-breathing dragons and a crop of warriors that arose when the dragon's teeth were sown in a field, they succeeded. Finally, to honor the valiant ram, Zeus placed it among the stars in the gleaming girdle encircling the sky, the zodiac.

Aries has none of the brightest stars, so a little patience and persistence is required to learn to locate it. Look to the east in the evening and find the dim clustered stars of the Pleiades and, below them, the companion cluster in a "V" shape, the Hyades. The bright reddish star at the end of the "V" is Aldebaron, brightest star in Taurus, the Bull. Let Aldebaron be the beginning of an arc and extend it on through the Pleiades (it is about one clenched fist at arm's length between Aldebaron and the Pleiades). Keep on going about 25 degrees (two clenched fists at arms length) where the two brightest stars of Aries, close together (two finger-widths at arms length apart), will form the West End of the arc. Notice the dimmer star located just beyond the second star of the pair in Aries; let this dim star form the very tip of the arc we have described. Now, back along the arc, about midway between the Pleiades and the brightest star of Aries, there is still another very dim star belonging to Aries. The four stars you have found, two of them considerably brighter than the others, are all there is to see of Aries without optical aid.

It is not the brightness of the stars of Aries that makes them worth knowing. They provide one of the twelve constellation sky-marks to help you know the zodiac, and it is the zodiac, after all that is essential if you are to know the apparent journeys of the Sun in our sky caused by the fact that we orbit the Sun. From mid-April until mid-May the Sun is drifting under the stars of Aries that we have just described. Thus, they are not visible during spring. We begin to pick them up in the early morning in summer and they rise in the evening during autumn. In late November they are high in the southeast at 8:00 p.m. and nearly overhead by 10:00 p.m. If you have trouble finding them, visit your local planetarium or contact your local astronomy club for a program about the current sky and ask the staff or club member to identify Aries. You could also ask one of these organizations for a chart of the sky to assist in finding Aries.

Now that we have Aries as the first point in our exploration of the zodiac, we will be able to continue looking around to learn the entire highway of the Sun, Moon and planets. Consider the significance of such knowledge. When you have it, you will be one of the elite few who can feel at home along the pathway of the wanderers of the sky. Having already recovered the Golden Fleece, you are on your way to becoming an honorary member of Jason's crew of argonauts, mentally voyaging back across time and out into future oceans of space to visit planets that travel the road paved in images immortalizing stories about heroes of ages past.

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