Friday is the traditional night many restaurants in the Midwest offer all-you-can-eat fish fries. Maybe you've already made plans for tonight. If so, after you've finished dabbing the oil from your lips, look to the sky to expand on your piscatorial experience.
The waxing gibbous moon shines about a fist to the lower left of Jupiter and 15 degrees (1 1/2 fists) to the upper right of Fomalhaut (FO-mal-owt or FO-mal-oh). Formalhaut is not only the brightest star in the low-lying constellation Piscis Austrinus the Southern Fish but the only first magnitude star among the traditional autumn constellations.
Spring and summer have their share of luminaries and winter even more, but fall got sidelined through no fault of its own. It's one of the reasons that the autumn sky looks emptier than most seasons. We're grateful that now and for the next several years Jupiter and Saturn will help to raise that profile.
Like so many star names, Fomalhaut is an Arabic construction. It means "mouth of the fish," and that's exactly where it appears in Piscis Austrinus. You might wonder if there's a complementary Northern Fish constellation. Yes, there is! But we simply call it Pisces the Fish. Both patterns hark back to the days of Babylon and have survived to this day. Both are also faint groups that require a dark sky to pick out. This seems fitting as catching a real fish from beneath the waves also requires skill, not the least of which is patience, a virtue every skywatcher hones throughout their life.
Once the moon is out of the picture you can find Formalhaut anytime this season by connecting it into a triangle with Jupiter and Saturn. The star is close to us — just 25 light-years away and about twice as massive as the sun.
In the early 2000s, astronomers announced the discovery of a planet within a ring of dusty debris surrounding Fomalhaut. But "Fomalhaut b" faded and disappeared in photos taken years later, leading scientists to believe that what they saw was a temporary cloud of icy debris created when two asteroids smashed into one another. There may still be planets there to discover just as the Southern Fish waits for you to discover it.
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Read more of his work at duluthnewstribune.com/astrobob.