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Jimmy Westlake: 13th constellation of the Zodiac

The bright star Rasalhague marks the head of Ophiuchus

— If you are an Ophiuchan, please raise your hand. Hmmm … I'm not seeing any hands out there. Perhaps you are an Ophiuchan and you don't know it. Please allow me to explain.

Ophi­uchus is one of our 88 official constellations, and a big one at that, covering nearly 1,000 square degrees of our summer sky. He represents the great mythological witch doctor Aesculapius who learned from a serpent the secret of raising people from the dead.

In fact, it was Aesculapius who brought the great hunter Orion back to life after he was mortally wounded by the scorpion's sting. Hades, the ruler of the underworld, became concerned that once the secret to eternal life was known, he would no longer receive any new souls, so he convinced Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, to strike Aesculapius down with a lightening bolt. To honor the great witch doctor (after zapping him with lightning!), Zeus placed his image in the heavens, holding a serpent and standing on top of Scorpius the Scorpion to symbolize his power over the scorpion's deadly sting. You can spot the stars of Ophiuchus this month high up in the southern sky above the bright red star Antares, which marks the heart of Scorpius.

Now, most people have heard of the 12 signs of the zodiac, and almost everyone knows their astrological sun sign, that is, the sign of the zodiac occupied by the sun on the day they were born. What most people don't know is that the signs of the zodiac and their related constellations no longer match up in the sky. They did 2,600 years ago when astrology was first invented, but because of the wobbling of the Earth on its axis, the signs of the zodiac and the stars that make up the constellations of the zodiac are now off by as much as two constellations.

For example, a Libran today who thinks that the sun was in the constellation of Libra when they were born is wrong. The sun actually was passing through the stars of Virgo. To make matters even more confusing, the sun does not only pass through the 12 traditional constellations of the zodiac, but it also spends nearly three weeks of the year passing through the stars of Ophiuchus, the 13th constellation of the zodiac. If you were born between Nov. 29 and Dec. 18, then you are really an Ophiuchan!

Now, once again, if you are an Ophiuchan, please raise your hand. Ahhh … that's more like it. Be proud you're an Ophiuchan!

Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have been published all around the world. His "Celestial News" column appears weekly in the Steamboat Pilot & Today newspaper and his "Cosmic Moment" radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Also, check out Jimmy's astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.