How to Find the Pisces Constellation in the Night Sky

Northern hemisphere autumn constellations.
Pisces rides high in the northern hemisphere autumn skies, view to the south.

 Carolyn Collins Petersen

The constellation Pisces can be seen from nearly all points on Earth. Pisces has a storied history and is one of the constellations of the Zodiac, a set of star patterns that lies along the apparent path of the Sun against the sky throughout the year. The name "Pisces" comes from the Latin plural for "fish."

Pisces used to be referred to as the first constellation of the zodiac. This is because the Sun appears against the backdrop of Pisces during the northern hemisphere's the spring equinox, which was previously considered the start of a new year.

Finding Pisces

The constellation Pisces is easiest to see in October and November, or on late evenings in September. Because its stars are relatively dim, Pisces, is most visible in a dark country sky.

the constellation Pegasus with its neighbors and some deep-sky objects.
Pisces is very close to Pegasus in the sky. It's one of three northern hemisphere autumn constellations that are easy to spot. Carolyn Collins Petersen

The constellation Pisces is part of a larger grouping of Pegasus, Andromeda, Aries, and Triangulum. The stars that make up Pisces have a rough V-shape. The eastern fish has a small triangular head and the western fish has a small circlet for a head. It is located right next to the Great Square of Pegasus in the northern hemisphere sky, and the heads of the fishes are either to the west or southeast of the Square.

The Story of Pisces

Ancient Babylonians saw the constellation Pisces as two separate objects: the Great Swallow (a bird) and the Lady of Heaven. Later, the Greeks and Romans saw a goddess of love and fertility—for the Greeks, it was Aphrodite, while for the Romans, it was Venus. Chinese astronomers saw this region of the sky as a farmer's fence that kept animals from escaping. Today, most stargazers think of Pisces as two fish in the sky.

The Stars of Pisces

Pisces is not one of the brightest constellations in the sky, but it is large. It does have several brighter stars, including α Piscium—also known as Alrescha (Arabic for "the cord"). Alrescha, which lies about 140 light-years away from us, is at the deepest point of the V shape. 

IAU chart for Pisces constellation.
The IAU constellation designation for Pisces includes the main pattern plus numerous other stars. IAU/Sky & Telescope 

The second-brightest star is β Piscium, with the lengthy informal name of Fumalsamakah (which means "mouth of the fish" in Arabic). It's much farther away from us, at a distance of just under 500 light-years. There are about 20 brighter stars within Pisces' "fish" pattern, and numerous others in the official region designated by the IAU as "Pisces" on its charts. 

Deep Sky Objects in Pisces

The constellation Pisces doesn't have a lot of very obvious deep-sky objects, but the best one for stargazers to spot is a galaxy called M74 (from Charles Messier's list of "faint fuzzy objects").

M74 is spiral galaxy, similar in shape to the Milky Way (although its arms are not so tightly wound up as those in our home galaxy). It lies about 30 million light-years away from us.

Professional astronomers continually study M74 because it's "face on" from our point of view here on Earth. This positioning allows astronomers to study the star-forming regions in the spiral arms, and search out variable stars, supernovae, and other objects among the 100 billion stars that make up the galaxy. Astronomers use instruments like the Spitzer Space Telescope to study the galaxy for regions of star birth, as it is a prodigious star-formation galaxy. They are also intrigued by the possibility of a black hole at the heart of M74. 

Galaxy M74 in Pisces
Here is the galaxy M 74 as seen through the infrared-sensitive instruments onboard the Spitzer Space Telescope. The view shows areas of starbirth in the spiral arms. NASA/CalTech/Spitzer

Although it's not in Pisces, the Triangulum galaxy (known as M33) is right next to the head of the western fish. It's a spiral galaxy that is actually part of the Local Group of galaxies that includes the Milky Way.

Galaxy M33 near Pisces
A view of the Triangulum Galaxy (M 33) near Pisces. This was taken with amateur equipment. Kanwar Singh, Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike 4.0. 

Andromeda is the largest member of the group, the Milky Way is second-largest, and M33 is third-largest. Interestingly, astronomers have observed that Andromeda and M33 are linked together by streams of gas, which means that the two have had a tango in the past and will likely interact again in the distant future.