Ares, the name for the God of War among the ancient Greeks later became known as Mars to the Romans. We give the name Mars to our red-hued planet, and NOT the name “Ares,” but the name “Aries,” which comes from the Latin for “ram” – to the first sign of the zodiac. In most circles, the name “Aries” is also given to the constellation depicting a ram. In order to dispel at least some of this confusion, in the SAMS, we refer to the zodiac sign as Aries and the constellation as The Ram. So, in truth, we are not using Mars (aka Ares) to find Aries, but rather to find The Ram! Phew!
And how fortunate we are on these cool winter nights to have a helper in our search for one of the most inconspicuous and unremarkable constellations in the sky! Still, it is located very near to the ecliptic, so it is certainly worthy of our attention.
You may recall from a former post the Great Square of Pegasus and how it can be useful to find the March Equinox point (aka 0˚ Aries). Mars has now moved into the sign of Taurus where it also enters the constellation of The Ram. The Ram is a very small constellation only composed of a few stars, the brightest of which, Hamal, is only the 50th brightest star in the sky at a magnitude of +2.0.
Even so, it is best to try to spot Hamal first. It is located above and to the left of Mars over the next few weeks. After locating Hamal, look for the other two stars on either side of Hamal that form a line. It is difficult to picture any sort of image, let alone conceive of a ram from this faint grouping of stars, but at least we can use Hamal to aid us in locating the ecliptic by drawing a line to the nearby Pleiades.
It takes a bit of imagination and persistence to be dazzled by such a nondescript portion of the sky, but having Mars there makes it much easier. Once you get the hang of spotting The Ram, add in the fact that Uranus is there as well! Invisible to our naked eyes, Mars will be crossing Uranus on January 20th giving us a wonderful opportunity to “see” what isn’t there in a part of the sky we ordinarily wouldn’t pay any attention to.