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Heavenly Skies: Aquarius, bearing water across the heavens

By: By Darlene Young, Special to Gold Country News Service
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The Community Observatory
Where: 6699 Campus Drive, Placerville
Info: www.communityobservatory.com, (530) 642-5621, ext. 9.

Aquarius the water bearer is one of 14 constellations named after men and women. The best time to view it is in the fall, in the southern sky.

In ancient times, when the sun passed through the constellation Aquarius, it was the rainy season, therefore, this constellation is sometimes depicted as a god, pouring the waters of life into a wet region of the sky.

Actually, in Greek/ Roman mythology, Aquarius began as a young boy named Ganymede. He was a son of Tros, first king of Troy. Ganymede tended sheep on the slopes of Mount Ida, on the island of Crete.

One day Zeus (also known as Jupiter) noticed Ganymede and decided to take him to Olympus to serve as the water cup bearer in the ‘home of the gods’.

So Zeus sent an eagle, Aquila, to carry Ganymede to Olympus. And as compensation for taking his son, Zeus gave King Tros a herd of immortal horses. (In another version of the story, Zeus turned himself into the eagle and carried Ganymede to Olympus).

To honor the events surrounding the elevation of Ganymede to “cup bearer and servant of the gods,” Zeus immortalized Ganymede by placing the constellation Aquarius (water bearer) into the sky. Zeus also placed in the sky the constellation Aquila, the eagle who carried off Ganymede.

Incidentally, one of Jupiter’s moons is named after Ganymede (it is Jupiter’s brightest moon). And another interesting note is that if you closely scan the sky between March and June, you may be able to see Ganymede’s water cup, known as the constellation Crater.

With some imagination, you can see the figure of Aquarius (Ganymede) in the sky, perhaps dangling from the flying eagle. There is the head, then an arm hanging down, and at the lower end of the body are two bent legs.

A second description of Aquarius (if you can see all of the faint stars) is of a giant holding a huge upturned urn from which pours an unending stream of water.

Within the constellation Aquarius are: M2, a globular star cluster; Helix nebula (NGC 7293), the Saturn nebula (NGC 7009) a planetary nebula, located directly east of the ‘foot’, so named because it resembles the planet Saturn, it is seen as a pale blue disc.

The chief stars in Aquarius are: Sadalmelek, a yellow super giant, 750 light years away; Sadalsud, a super giant and the brightest star in the constellation, 600 light years away; Sadachib, 160 light years away (part of a small Arabic constellation called “the tent” that is recognized in many European depictions as the urn from which Ganymede pours).

The Community Observatory, located in Placerville, is a nice place to visit if you are interested in viewing the constellations and other wonders of the sky.

It is open to the public on weekends when the weather allows for viewing. It is free to all visitors, but donations are most certainly welcome to support the maintenance of the facility and telescopes.

Docents, who volunteer their time to open the facility and share their knowledge, are present to help you look at stars, planets, galaxies and other wonders through the 14” and 17” telescopes.

Current hours of operation and open/closed status information can be found at www.communityobservatory.com or by calling (530) 642-5621, ext. 9.

Darlene Young is a docent for the Cameron Park Rotary Club Community Observatory located in Placerville.