Meaning “The Altar” in Latin, Ara (pronounced Ay-ruh) is a small constellation, visible in the Southern Hemisphere of the globe.
This article will outline a variety of facts, myths and information about the history of this constellation.
Ara Constellation Facts
Fact: The constellation was discovered by astronomer Claudius Ptolemy
Born in 100 AD in Alexandria, Egypt, Ptolemy discovered Ara in the 2nd century.
Ptolemy is best known for his theory around the Model of the Universe, which states that the universe was a set of stars, moons and planets circling Earth, as opposed to the modern-day discoveries which prove that Earth, among other celestial objects within our solar system, actually circle the sun.
Ara Constellation Location: Ara is located within the Scorpius Constellation
Found in the south of the Scorpion’s tail, Ara contains a variety of nebula’s and clusters.
Most notable is the Stringray Nebula, which is the youngest known nebula in our universe.
It sits about 18,000 light-years from Earth and is considered to still be in its infancy since its central star only began generating enough heat to sufficiently make gasses glow in the last 25 years.
Although the Stringray Nebula may be in its early stages, do not let its young age fool you. It is still 130 times larger than our own solar system.
Ara can be found between November and January in the third quadrant of the Southern Hemisphere at +25° and -90° latitude, although, it is best visible to the naked eye in the Southern Hemisphere in the month of July past 21:00h.
Some of its celestial neighbors include Corona Australis, Apus, Pavo and Norma.
Fact: Ara is a small constellation
Housing an area of only 237 square degrees, Ara places 63rd in relation to 88 other recognized constellation sizes in the sky.
While it may be labelled as a small constellation, Ara still houses, in addition to the Stringray Nebula, about 9 open clusters, as well as the Waterlily Nebula, a pre-planetary nebula which contains hydrocarbons sufficient in constituting the potential for life.
Fact: Ara contains both stars and exo-planets
Within its constellation, Ara houses several stars which are known to have a number of planets combined.
Mu Arae and Gliese 676 house 8 planets between the two of them, while HD 154857 has one known and one suspected planet.
Ara has two named and notable stars. Inquill and Cervantes have been officially authorized by the IAU (International Astronomical Union).
Its brightest star is located within the orange supergiant Beta Arae constellation.
Its closest star is Gliese 674, a red dwarf system, sitting roughly 14,000 lightyears from Earth.
Fact: The Milky Way crosses paths with Ara
Our very own galaxy, the Milky Way, crosses Ara in the Northwest of the constellation.
In this area is where we find super star cluster Westerlund 1, notable for housing Westerlund 1-26, a red supergiant and one of the largest stars ever discovered.
The NGC 6397 cluster, which is the brightest found in Ara, is the closest to our solar system, sitting only 6,500 lightyears from Earth.
Fact: Chinese and Australian perceptions differ
In Chinese Astrology, Ara lies within a constellation called “The Azure Dragon of the East”.
The stars form two predominant shapes, one being a tortoise and one being a Pestle.
The Wardaman People of Australia in the Northern Territory viewed the constellations of Pavo and Ara as flying foxes.
Fact: Ara contains no Messier objects
A Messier Object, first catalogued by French astronomer Charles Messier, is a set of 110 particular astronomical objects, ranging from nebulas to clusters, to star clouds.
Messier’s original goal was to find comets, and these items were discovered as non-comet items which led to frustration as they got in the way of his intent to find comets.
While Ara does contain its own sets of nebulas and deep-sky objects, it includes no items notably discovered by Messier.
Ara Constellation Myths: The exact Altar that Ara is set to represent is unclear
There are two predominant stories within Greek Mythology that differ as to what (or who) the Altar represented.
In one tale, it represents Zeus and the Gods defeating the Titans and overthrowing the ruler of the Universe, Cronus.
Cronus was the son of Uranus, the previous ruler of the universe.
The fight between the Gods and the Titans lasted 10 years, with the Gods holding the victory.
When the Gods won, Zeus became the ruler of the sky, Hades became the ruler of the underworld, and Poseidon became the God of the sea.
To commemorate their victory over the Titans, Zeus placed the Altar, or, Ara, in the sky.
In another, more disconcerting tale, Ara represents the Altar of Lycaon, the king of Arcadia, who waged war with Zeus by serving him a dismembered child as a meal and later trying to kill him.
Enraged, Zeus turned Lycaon into a wolf and stuck his 50 children down with lightning bolts.
Myths: Drawings of the Altar
There are a number of different illustrations representing the Altar.
Typically it is depicted with the smoke coming from the Altar rising towards the South.
However, there are other drawings where it shows the Altar facing upright, with the smoke drifting away and merging into the Milky Way.
The most popular and commonly used illustration of the constellation is by Johan Elert Bode from his Uranographia in 1801.
An earlier version in 1482 by Gaius Julius Hyginus depicts the altar being surrounded by demons.
Other impressions have included items such as burning incense, devils, and animal sacrifice.
The most recent translation was in 1565 by Marcellus Palingenius, along with the text, “Here mayst thou both the Altar, and the myghty Cup beholde.”
Ara is a small but important galaxy in the 48 constellations outlined in Ptolemy’s Almagest and within the 88 recognized constellations from the International Astronomical Union.
With many notable deep-sky objects, and with the quick advancements in space discovery, we may come to find even more items hiding within its dimensions.