What’s your sign? I’m born under Sagittarius, the Archer. December. Interestingly, Sagittarius is actually part of our summer sky, rising in the southeast in late May. It is one of the twelve members of the zodiac, the group of constellations that is not only important in astronomy, but also integral to those who follow astrology. So, born in winter, I have to wait until summer to look for the telltale “teapot.” Strange business.
Apparently, the signs of the zodiac were first established some 3,000 years ago. They have nothing to do with size or brightness, but rather by where they are found in the sky. These 12 are just part of the 88 constellations that are recognized by the International Astronomical Union.
Some members of the zodiac, like Libra and Cancer, contain rather faint stars. Others, such as Leo and Taurus, are much more easily spotted. However, all share two characteristics: they are more easily observed in the opposite season for which they are best known, and each has at least one star that falls within the ecliptic, the apparent path of the sun as seen from Earth.
Clearly, though, it is not the sun that is moving across the sky, but rather the changing view from our own planet as it slowly circles the sun. One of my favorite memories from childhood is walking from the left field flagpole in Yankee Stadium to the far corner of right field. The only thing that moved was me, yet every part of the ballfield seemed to change so drastically and rapidly. Our perspective of the sky is determined by the position of the Earth on its yearly pass around the sun. That’s the astronomical side.
For astrologers, the zodiac holds great meaning, for it professes to influence human affairs. I must confess to have read my horoscope many, many times, especially on my birthday. If I liked what it said I’d yell out, “that’s me.” Otherwise, I’d tell myself that tea leaves might be a better prognosticator. Since the 1900s researchers have shown that astrology, while it might be fun, has no scientific basis.
So, let’s head back to Sagittarius. Though it is known as the Archer, it seems to me to resemble a teapot. Aside from its unique configuration, it holds several famous objects, including two wondrous gas clouds, the Trifid and Lagoon Nebulae. You’ll need dark skies and a strong telescope to spot them, but a Google search will display their beauty with just a few taps on a keyboard.
Perhaps more incredibly, astronomers have pinpointed the center of our galaxy to an area just west of teapot’s spout.
You can find Sagittarius most easily in May if you’re a very early riser. It will be nearly due south just above the horizon in the early morning hours before dawn. By the end of summer, it’ll be visible during the evening.
Most importantly, at least for me, Sagittarius’ arrival coincides with the change in weather, with the chance to spend more time outside at night. It’s yet another example of the dichotomies we find in the heavens. We Sagittarians celebrate our own arrivals in the cold of winter, when the lazy days of summer and the dazzling displays of autumn are behind us.
And yet, here we are in May. Trees have given color to the desert. The wind no longer sends us inside for warmth. Sagittarius’ return beckons us to return our gazes to the sky. After a year of trauma, it is another gift – like the new growth on the mesquites and the palo verde – that proves that life has again found its way. Sagittarius is, indeed, a sign. It says “Welcome Back.”