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Editorial Office, E. Cetus. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 15 April 2024).
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Editorial Office, Encyclopedia. "Cetus." Encyclopedia. Web. 08 March, 2024.

Cetus, known as the Whale, is a large constellation visible in the southern sky. In Greek mythology, Cetus represents the sea monster sent by Poseidon to terrorize the kingdom of Aethiopia, eventually slain by Perseus to rescue Andromeda. As one of the 88 recognized constellations, Cetus holds a special place in the realm of astronomy and mythology. 

astronomy constellation IAU

1. Introduction

Cetus, often referred to as the Whale, is a constellation located in the southern celestial hemisphere. Spanning a vast area of the sky, Cetus is notable for its distinctive shape and prominent stars, which have captivated astronomers and stargazers throughout history. Its celestial coordinates place it in a prime position for observation from southern latitudes, offering a wealth of celestial wonders to explore. Characterized by its elongated shape resembling a sea creature, Cetus occupies a significant portion of the southern sky. It is bordered by several other well-known constellations, including Aries, Pisces, Aquarius, and Eridanus, further enhancing its visibility and importance in the celestial sphere (Figure 1). Celestial coordinates place Cetus between approximately right ascension 0h and 3h, and declination between approximately -10° and -25°. Its proximity to the celestial equator makes it visible from both northern and southern latitudes, though it is best observed from locations closer to the equator or in the southern hemisphere.

Cetus is home to several notable stars, including Menkar (Alpha Ceti), Diphda (Beta Ceti), and Mira (Omicron Ceti). These stars vary in brightness and spectral type, contributing to the constellation's celestial allure and scientific significance. Menkar, the brightest star in Cetus, is a red giant located approximately 220 light-years away from Earth, while Diphda is a white giant star located approximately 96 light-years away. Mira, also known as the "Wonderful Star," is a famous variable star that pulsates in brightness over a period of about 11 months.

Figure 1. IAU chart of Cetus. Source: Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope. Reproduced under CC BY 4.0 license.

2. Historical Background and Mythology

The myth of Cetus dates back to ancient Greece and is intricately linked to the legend of Perseus and Andromeda. According to Greek mythology, Cassiopeia, the queen of Aethiopia, boasted of her daughter Andromeda's beauty, comparing it to that of the sea nymphs known as the Nereids. Enraged by Cassiopeia's arrogance, Poseidon, the god of the sea, sent a fearsome sea monster, Cetus, to wreak havoc upon the kingdom. In desperation, King Cepheus, Cassiopeia's husband, consulted the Oracle of Ammon for guidance on how to appease the wrath of Poseidon. The oracle decreed that Andromeda must be sacrificed to Cetus to save the kingdom from destruction. Andromeda was chained to a rock by the sea as an offering to the sea monster, awaiting her fate. It was at this critical moment that Perseus, the legendary Greek hero, arrived on the scene. Having recently slain the Gorgon Medusa and obtained her severed head, Perseus witnessed Andromeda's plight and vowed to rescue her. Armed with the Gorgon's head, Perseus turned Cetus to stone, saving Andromeda from a gruesome fate.

The constellation of Cetus is often depicted as a sea monster or whale, reflecting its role in Greek mythology. Its elongated shape and position in the celestial sphere evoke images of a creature emerging from the depths of the cosmic ocean. The star Beta Ceti, also known as Diphda, represents the heart of the sea monster in traditional depictions of the constellation.

Beyond Greek mythology, Cetus appears in the astronomical traditions of other cultures as well. In Babylonian astronomy, Cetus was associated with the sea god Ea and depicted as a hybrid creature with the body of a fish and the head of a lion. The Babylonians believed that the constellation represented chaos and destruction, reflecting the unpredictable and sometimes treacherous nature of the sea. In Arabic astronomy, Cetus was known as "Al Hut" or "The Whale." Arab astronomers observed and cataloged the stars of Cetus, contributing to the development of the constellation's modern designation and recognition. In Chinese astronomy, Cetus was not recognized as a distinct constellation but was instead incorporated into neighboring constellations such as Pisces and Aquarius.

3. Notable Stars

Alpha Ceti (Menkar): Alpha Ceti, also known by its traditional name Menkar, is the brightest star in the constellation Cetus. It is a red giant star located approximately 220 light-years away from Earth. With an apparent magnitude of 2.54, Menkar is easily visible to the naked eye. The name Menkar is derived from the Arabic phrase "منخر الحوت" (Mankib al-Hūt), meaning "the nose of the whale," reflecting its position in the constellation.

Beta Ceti (Diphda): Beta Ceti, also known as Diphda, is another prominent star in the constellation Cetus. It is a white giant star located approximately 96 light-years away from Earth. Diphda has an apparent magnitude of 2.04, making it one of the brighter stars in the night sky. The name Diphda is derived from the Arabic word "ضفدع" (ḍafdaʿ), meaning "frog," although its association with Cetus is uncertain.

Omicron Ceti (Mira): Omicron Ceti, commonly known as Mira, is a variable star located in the constellation Cetus. Mira is a red giant star approximately 200-400 light-years away from Earth. What makes Mira notable is its variability in brightness, with its magnitude changing over a period of approximately 332 days. Mira is one of the most famous and studied variable stars in the night sky, with its name meaning "wonderful" or "astonishing" in Latin.

Tau Ceti: Tau Ceti is a nearby single star located approximately 11.9 light-years away from Earth. It is similar to the Sun in mass and spectral type, making it an important target for the search for exoplanets and extraterrestrial life. Tau Ceti has been extensively studied for its potential habitability and planetary system, although no confirmed exoplanets have been detected around it yet.

4. Deep-Sky Objects

NGC 247: NGC 247 is a spiral galaxy located approximately 11 million light-years away from Earth. It is notable for its distinctive shape and structure, with spiral arms extending from a bright central bulge. NGC 247 is a member of the Sculptor Group of galaxies, a nearby galaxy cluster that also includes the Sculptor Galaxy (NGC 253). Observations of NGC 247 have provided valuable data for studying the properties and dynamics of spiral galaxies.

M77 (NGC 1068) - Cetus A: M77, also known as NGC 1068 or Cetus A, is a Seyfert galaxy located approximately 47 million light-years away from Earth. It is one of the brightest and nearest examples of an active galaxy, characterized by a bright core and intense emission lines in its spectrum. M77 is believed to harbor a supermassive black hole at its center, which fuels the energetic activity observed in the galaxy. It is a popular target for astronomers studying active galactic nuclei and the processes of black hole accretion.

NGC 1055: NGC 1055 is a barred spiral galaxy located approximately 52 million light-years away from Earth. It is a member of the M77 Group of galaxies, a small galaxy cluster that also includes the Seyfert galaxy M77. NGC 1055 is notable for its tilted orientation relative to Earth, giving it an edge-on appearance when viewed from our vantage point. Observations of NGC 1055 have provided valuable insights into the structure and dynamics of barred spiral galaxies.

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Update Date: 08 Mar 2024