By Adam England
As early as 2,000 B.C.E., the Babylonian and Egyptian cultures predicted the seasons by the changing of the night sky. One of the most important events in these changing seasons was the regular flooding of their respective great rivers, which could bring not only destruction, but also nutrient rich sediments to their fields, and ensure another season of fertile and life-sustaining crops. Thus, the Water Bearer came to be known as the bringer of waters, both good and bad.
The Hindu zodiac labeled this cluster of stars Kumbha or “water pitcher.” The Babylonians knew it as GU.LA — “The Great One” — being the god Ea holding an overflowing vase. Ancient Egyptians first named it “Aquarius,” who, dipping his jar into the river, began the season of Akhet or the Inundation of the Nile River. Along with the modern constellations “Cetus” the whale, “Pisces” the fish, and “Eridanus” the river, the water themed region of the sky that Aquarius resides in is oft times called “The Sea.”
Most of the stars in Aquarius are dim and not of great mention, but we have recently found that several of its stars do host planetary systems. Of these, the closest to Earth is Gliese 876, just 15 light years distant, and hosting four known planets, three gas giants and one possibly a rocky terrestrial body about six times the mass of Earth.
Of more visual importance to the amateur astronomer are the nebulae and star clusters that can be found within Aquarius. Messier 2 (M2) is one of the largest globular clusters visible from Earth. Containing over 150,000 individual stars which are mostly red and yellow giants, it spans a diameter of approximately 175 light years and resides at an average distance of 55,000 light years from Earth. Charles Messier thought it to be a nebula when he viewed it in 1760, William Herschel was the first to resolve the individual stars in 1783.
An actual nebula in the same vicinity is the Helix Nebula. Approximately 700 light years distant, it is one of the closest nebulae to Earth and one of the most viewed and recognized. Pop culture has dubbed it the “Eye of God” and the “Eye of Sauron” for its shape of a circular inner ring and more ovular outer ring. It formed from the central star shedding its outer layers approximately 10,000 years ago, and continues to expand at an average rate of 32 km/sec.
Visit Prescott Astronomy Club at PrescottAstronomyClub.Org and Facebook to find out about upcoming star parties, Star Talks, and more. Contact them at Contact@PrescottAstronomyClub.Org.
Adam England is a local insurance broker who moonlights as an amateur astronomer, writer, handyman, and interplanetary conquest consultant.