Jimmy Westlake: Season of the Scorpion
July 13, 2010
There aren't many constellations that resemble the objects or creatures for which they are named. Scorpius, the Scorpion, is a delightful example of one that does. The celestial scorpion scampers across our southern sky on summer evenings, so this month is prime time for scorpion hunting.
As soon as it gets dark in the evening, step outside and face south. The brightest star you see there will be the flashy, red heart of the Scorpion, a star named Antares. From Antares, trace a line of fainter stars, toward the lower left, that curls up on the end like a giant fishhook. This is the Scorpion's tail, marked at its tip by the deadly stinger star, Shaula. To the right of Antares, you'll spot a vertical trio of stars reminiscent of Orion's belt of winter. The middle star, Dschubba, represents the Scorpion's head and the two stars on either side mark his pincers.
In Greek mythology, Scorpius is notorious for stinging and killing Orion, the Hunter. The legend tells us that Orion once made the boast that he could kill every living creature on Earth. The animals got together and decided they must make a preemptive strike, just in case Orion was serious. They chose one of their smallest members, the Scorpion, to teach Orion a deadly lesson. Stalking the Hunter one day in the woods, the Scorpion stung Orion on the heel. The great Hunter wheeled around in pain and collapsed. The Scorpion and the Hunter were immortalized in the stars as our constellations of Orion and Scorpius, but they are placed on opposite sides of the sky so that the two mortal enemies never can be seen at the same time. Scorpius appears low in our mid-summer sky, while Orion rides high in the mid-winter sky.
In Hawaiian mythology, the stars of Scorpius represent the magic fishhook of the demigod Maui. One day while fishing in the Pacific Ocean, Maui accidentally snagged the ocean floor with his hook and inadvertently yanked up the Hawaiian Islands.
Scorpius has many treats for binocular observers. Sweep your binoculars around Scorpion's tail to find two beautiful clusters of glittering stars, named M6 and M7. And don't bypass Antares — it becomes a glowing red ember when seen through binoculars.
Whether you see a scorpion or a fishhook in these stars, this constellation quickly will become one of your favorites.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. His "Celestial News" column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today 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.