Brightest Stars

Al Risha binds the Fishes of Pisces together

Star chart of Pisces, stars in black on white, with small red oval for a galaxy.
Star chart for Pisces the Fish. The 2 fish lie on either side of the Great Square of Pegasus. The ecliptic (the path of the sun, moon and planets) cuts through Pisces. So it’s one of the constellations of the zodiac. The alpha star of Pisces – Al Risha – is pointed out with a red arrow. Image via IAU (CC BY 4.0).

Al Risha binds the Fishes together

Alpha Piscium, or Al Risha (also spelled Alrisha), isn’t one of the sky’s brightest stars. In fact, it’s only about 4th magnitude. That means you need a dark sky to see it.

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But Al Risha is a fascinating star in a prominent place in the zodiacal constellation Pisces the Fish. Pisces is one of the sky’s most graceful and beautiful constellations. Al Risha is very easy to pick out in Pisces if you have a dark sky.

Pisces the Fish is always shown as a pair of fish, swimming in opposite directions. The Western Fish lies in the graceful line of stars south of the Great Square of Pegasus. And the Northern Fish is another line of stars to the east of the Square. Al Risha represents the knot or cord that ties the two Fish together by ribbons at their tails. In fact, Al Risha means “the cord” in Arabic.

Star chart with square and arrow shapes of stars with circle on one end, all labeled.
Pisces the Fish is a constellation of the zodiac that lies near the Great Square of Pegasus. Pisces contains an asterism, or smaller informal grouping of stars, known as the Circlet. Chart via Chelynne Campion/ EarthSky.

How to see Al Risha

Northern Hemisphere autumn (or Southern Hemisphere spring) is a good time to see the constellation Pisces, with the star Al Risha at its heart, in the evening sky. As seen from across the globe, Pisces reaches its high point for the night at about 10 p.m. your local standard time in early November and at about 8 p.m. in early December.

If you can find the Great Square of Pegasus – which is very noticeable as a large square pattern on the sky’s dome, with four medium-bright stars marking its corners – you can find Pisces. You can, that is, if your sky is dark enough. To find a dark location near you, visit EarthSky’s Best Places to Stargaze.

You’ll probably pick out the Western Fish first, because it contains an asterism – or noticeable pattern of stars – known as the Circlet. The little circle of faint stars forming the Circlet in Pisces is visible in a dark sky on the southern edge of the Great Square.

The rest of the constellation Pisces forms a beautiful V shape – like the letter V – on two sides of the Square.

Antique colored etching of two fish tied together with a rope, in field of black-on-white stars.
Pisces in Urania’s Mirror, a set of celestial cards accompanied by “A familiar treatise on astronomy,” by Jehoshaphat Aspin, London, 1825. Image via Wikipedia (public domain).

Al Risha in star history and mythology

Although the star Al Risha is not very bright, its location within its constellation – at the tip of the V in Pisces – makes it very noticeable.

That’s surely why the German astronomer Johann Bayer, in 1603, gave this star the designation alpha in his star atlas Uranometria (named after Urania, the Greek Muse of Astronomy), even though Al Risha is only the 3rd brightest star in its constellation. Bayer’s system was to assign a Greek letter (alpha, beta, gamma and so on) to each star he catalogued, combined with the Latin name of the star’s parent constellation in genitive (possessive) form. So, for example, the star Al Risha is also Alpha Piscium, the alpha star of Pisces.

Most of the time, the alpha star is the brightest star in a constellation, but not always. There are two brighter stars in Pisces (although not much brighter). They are Eta and Gamma Piscium. Al Risha, by the way, is also one of the only stars in Pisces with a proper name. The early Arabian stargazers, who named it, noticed it, too.

In Roman mythology, the constellation Pisces is associated with the legend of Venus and Cupid (or, in the Greek myths, Aphrodite and her son Eros). These two escaped the monster Typhon (or Typhoon) by transforming themselves into fish and jumping into a river. Venus and Cupid are said to have bound themselves together so that, in escaping the monster, they would not be separated. The gods were pleased and placed the Fishes in the sky to commemorate the event.

Al Risha in science

Al Risha appears single, but it is a close double star, that is, two stars orbiting a common center of gravity. It consists of pair of class A stars that lie some 120 astronomical units (AU) apart, with one AU equaling one Earth-sun distance. So the two stars that we see as Al Risha are in fact separated by 120 times the distance between our Earth and sun, or about the distance between our sun and Pluto.

The two stars in the Al Risha system take 720 years to orbit each other. Yet these stars appear so close together from our earthly vantage point that amateur astronomers using backyard telescopes must look carefully to see both of them. Plus, from our perspective, the two stars are appearing to get closer together as they pursue their vast mutual orbit. It’s estimated they will appear closest, as seen from Earth, in the year 2060. Both stars are white, though some observers have reported subtle colors.

Al Risha is approximately 139 light-years away.

Al Risha’s position is: RA 02h 02m 03s, Dec +02° 45′ 50″

Bottom line: The star Al Risha, or Alrisha, shines at the point of the V-shaped constellation Pisces the Fish.

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Meet Pisces the Fish, 1st constellation of the zodiac

November 21, 2023
Brightest Stars

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