Heliacal rising

The heliacal rising (/hɪˈləkəl/ hih-LY-ə-kəl)[1][2][3] or star rise of a star occurs annually, or the similar phenomenon of a planet, when it first becomes visible above the eastern horizon at dawn just before sunrise (thus becoming "the morning star"), after it has spent a season behind the sun rendering it invisible.[4] Historically, the most important such rising is that of Sirius, which was an important feature of the Egyptian calendar and astronomical development. The rising of the Pleiades heralded the start of the Ancient Greek sailing season, using celestial navigation.[5]

Cause and significanceEdit

Sirius is the fixed star with the greatest apparent magnitude and one which is almost non-variable. The Pleiades, a key feature of Taurus shown across Orion in the same photograph also experience an annual period of visibility ("rising and setting").

Relative to the other stars, the Sun appears to drift eastward (about 1365.24219 of Earth's orbit—hence almost one degree—per solar day) along a path called the ecliptic (specifically appearing in front of 12 constellations considered the zodiac constellations from a total of 88 modern constellations) which is, by definition, the plane of the earth's orbit. While the Sun appears in front of (or south or north of) a relatively small group of stars they can no longer be seen either before dawn, during daytime or after sunset[a]—their appearance coincides with that of the Sun above the horizon.

Depending on the observer's latitude many stars are subject to annual heliacal risings and settings. Rising means the local latitude of the earth has moved along its orbit such that the star, star cluster or galaxy emerges for part of the year to within months be visible for the whole night and then for the early portion of the night. Thus the star's first emergence, an annual rise, is immediately before dawn. The risen status of each star is easiest considered day-on-day in the tropics where the time of dawn varies less.

The rising of a star which has had its annual rising ("heliacal rising"), typically over months, rises earlier at night and so at dawn figures more toward its annual highest point (meridian) and then in later dawns more toward the west all by about 1182 of its arc (about 1365 of the circle) per day, until, observing the western sky after sunset, it has already disappeared. This is called the cosmical setting.[6] The same star will reappear in the eastern sky at dawn approximately one year after its previous rising. For zodiac and near-zodiac constellations (near the ecliptic, the apparent daily path of the Sun), Earth's precession means the date of their rising increases gradually, completing one cycle in about 26,000 years (for example at the March Equinox, the position of the Sun relative to the stars—at which Right Ascension is calibrated as zero, the First Point of Aries, is in the preceding constellation of Pisces.)[7]

Non-application to circumpolar starsEdit

Some stars, when viewed from latitudes not at the equator, do not rise or set. These are circumpolar stars, which are either always in the sky or never. For example, the North Star (Polaris) is not visible in Australia and the Southern Cross is not seen in Europe, because they always stay below the respective horizons.

The term circumpolar is somewhat localised as between the Tropic of Cancer and the Equator, the Southern polar constellations have a brief spell of annual visibility (thus "heliacal" rising and "cosmic" setting) and the same applies as to the other polar constellations in respect of the reverse tropic.


Constellations containing stars that rise and set were incorporated into early calendars or zodiacs. The Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Greeks all used the heliacal risings of various stars for the timing of agricultural activities.

Because of its position about 40° off the ecliptic, the heliacal risings of the bright star Sirius occur over a "Sothic year" almost exactly synchronized with the solar year.[b] Since the development of civilization, this has occurred at Cairo on July 19 on the Julian calendar.[9][c] Its returns also roughly corresponded to the onset of the annual flooding of the Nile before it was ended by the Aswan Low and High Dams. The ancient Egyptians appear to have constructed their 365-day civil calendar at a time when Wep Renpet, its New Year, corresponded with Sirius's return to the night sky.[8] Although this calendar's lack of leap years caused the event to shift one day every four years or so, astronomical records of this displacement led to the discovery of the Sothic cycle and, later, the establishment of the more accurate Julian and Alexandrian calendars.

The Egyptians also devised a method of telling the time at night based on the heliacal risings of 36 decan stars, one for each 10° segment of the 360° circle of the zodiac and corresponding to the ten-day "weeks" of their civil calendar.

To the Māori of New Zealand, the Pleiades are called Matariki, and their heliacal rising signifies the beginning of the new year (around June). The Mapuche of South America called the Pleiades Ngauponi which in the vicinity of the we tripantu (Mapuche new year) will disappear by the west, lafkenmapu or ngulumapu, appearing at dawn to the East, a few days before the birth of new life in nature. Heliacal rising of Ngauponi, i.e. appearance of the Pleiades by the horizon over an hour before the Sun approximately 12 days before the winter solstice, announced we tripantu.

When a planet has a heliacal rising, there is a conjunction with the Sun beforehand. Depending on the type of conjunction, there may be a syzygy, eclipse, transit, or occultation of the Sun.

Acronical and cosmic(al)Edit

The rising of a planet above the eastern horizon at sunset is called its acronychal rising, which for a superior planet signifies an opposition, another type of syzygy. When the Moon has an acronychal rising, it will occur near full moon and thus, in a small number of cases, a noticeable lunar eclipse. The last observation of rising at evening twilight after season of earlier risings is also distinguished as "acronychal rising". Cosmic(al) can refer to rising with sunrise or setting at sunset, or the first setting at morning twilight.[11]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ except as to those directly north and south of it can be observed in a full solar eclipse or other rare conditions e.g. near the poles in the very early or late day
  2. ^ The Sothic year is about a minute longer than a solar year.[8]
  3. ^ The exact date varies with latitude, so that Sirius's return is observed about 8–10 days later on the Mediterranean coast than at Aswan.[10] Official observations were made at Heliopolis or Memphis near Cairo, Thebes, and Elephantine near Aswan.[10] The date at any location also slowly varies within the Gregorian calendar, owing to its omission of three leap years every four centuries. It presently occurs on 3 August.[9]


  1. ^ "heliacal". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  2. ^ "heliacal". Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
  3. ^ "heliacal". Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House.
  4. ^ "Show Me a Dawn, or "Heliacal," Rising". Stanford University.
  5. ^ "Pleiad". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  6. ^ rising and setting of stars
  7. ^ Archaic Astronomy and Heliacal Rising
  8. ^ a b Tetley (2014), p. 42.
  9. ^ a b "Ancient Egyptian Civil Calendar", La Via, retrieved 8 February 2017.
  10. ^ a b Tetley, M. Christine (2014), The Reconstructed Chronology of the Egyptian Kings, Vol. I, p. .com/uploads/2/6/9/4/26943741/ch_3_investigating_ancient_egyptian_calendars.pdf 43, archived from the original on 2017-02-11, retrieved 2017-02-09.
  11. ^ Acronical Risings and Settings