It is difficult to write an astronomy column during basketball commercials. It is almost like trying to watch stars in between clouds drifting past.
If we have clear skies this week, (don’t hold your breath), we can watch Ophiuchus, the Healer, holding Serpens in his hands. Ophiuchus resembles a camping coffee pot. Located above Scorpius — it’s the one that looks like a fishhook or letter S.
With clear dark skies Ophiuchus is relatively easy to locate because it has fairly bright stars and is huge. The Serpent’s head is on the western side of Ophiuchus and hovers above a lovely globular star cluster designated M5. The eastern side contains the Serpent’s tail that curves all the way to the stars of Aquila, the Eagle.
Almost overhead are Hercules and Corona Borealis. Hercules resembles a stick figure frog, hardly heroic. But perhaps a kiss from a princess causes the hero transition. Corona Borealis is a small curve of stars just above the triangle of the serpent’s head near the zenith.
The waxing crescent moon is approaching first quarter and as its slender form emerges from the twilight glow in the west, you may see Castor and Pollux, those bright stars from the Gemini Twins lingering in the afterglow, along with Mercury and Venus. A decent telescope will reveal the phase Venus is in. Watching these two planets will reveal their constant motion as they draw closer together this week. They will be closest next Wednesday.
The official start of summer, the shortest night of the year will be 10:54 a.m. on June 21. This means the sunrise will occur at the point farthest north along the ecliptic. Since the earth is tilted on its axis we have varying seasons. From this day until the first day of winter the hours of daylight will be a few minutes less and the hours of darkness a few minutes longer.
This would make a unique summer-into-fall science fair project for some enterprising student, to mark just where along the horizon the sun rises and/or sets, and the official times of each. Science Fair judges look for data, and there would certainly be plenty of that.
This might be a good place for a story about Ophiuchus to entertain those students who are already getting bored staying at home. According to legend, he was a healer of ancient Greece. One day while chopping weeds out of his medicinal herb garden a poisonous serpent threatened to strike.
Ophiuchus used his hoe to chop the serpent in half. As it writhed along the ground a second serpent appeared with a particular leaf in its mouth which it placed on the bleeding edge of the serpent that instantly reattached and both slithered off to safety.
Ever the opportunist, the healer used the herb to heal all his patients; this aroused the ire of Hades, who was not getting any new boat rowers to cross folks over the River Styx. He complained about it and Zeus struck Ophiuchus with a bolt of lightning. And that was the end of the healer. This is the condensed version; the library has books about this and other constellations and there are numerous internet websites with detailed stories on the traditional ones.
For a summer activity you might want to get a star map and locate some constellations and write your own family stories about the constellations the same way the ancient cultures developed the ones we share today. Uncle Al’s star wheel is one choice to Google.
Until next week, do let some stars get in your eyes.