Just about everyone knows Cassiopeia, Orion and the Dippers, but have you ever run across Ophiuchus? Pronounced oh-fee-YOU-cuss, this big constellation is now front and center at nightfall in early August. I bet you’ve looked right past Ophiuchus any number of times en route to Saturn or the Sagittarius “Teapot.” Now seems like the right time to meet the serpent-bearer and his serpent. You don’t even have to stay up late. Just step outside near the end of evening twilight and face south. He’s right there.
The constellation is an ancient one, going back to at least the ancient Greeks of the 2nd century. Ophiuchus represents a man holding a snake, but his outline better resembles a bell. Branching out either side of the bell is a unique constellation, Serpens. It’s the only one that’s split into two separate non-touching parts. There’s Serpens Caput (serpent’s head) to the right or west of Ophiuchus and Serpens Cauda (tail) to the east.
Snakes are symbols of re-birth and regeneration, the reason one appears coiled around the Rod of Asclepius, a symbol still used in the medical profession and associated with the Greek god of medicine, Asclepius (as-CLEE-pee-us). Ophiuchus is likewise associated with healing.
You can find this big, airy star pattern (it’s three fists tall and two wide) by using two bright objects, Saturn and Antares, the brightest star in Scorpius. Use the accompanying chart and start at Saturn and Antares, the two brightest objects in the due south direction at nightfall to point you to Sabik. Once you’ve found this star, star-hop around the figure to see the “bell.” For bonus points, use your newfound knowledge to venture east and west from Ophiuchus to Serpens, another ancient constellation. Though neither is flashy, together these groups occupy a substantial part of the southern sky in mid to late summer.
Learning new constellations fills in the gaps in our knowledge of the night sky and provides a necessary foundation to take the next step, should you choose to do so, of navigating to double stars, nebulae and star clusters with binoculars or a telescope. Tomorrow, we’ll take a peak at what’s inside the good doctor’s medical bag.