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Celestial News: Seeking summer’s Southern stars

This portrait of the southern sky was taken from Yellowstone National Park, overlooking Yellowstone Lake, on June 26, 2022. Summer’s southern sky is dominated by the constellations of Sagittarius, Scorpius, Libra, Ophiuchus, Serpens, and Aquila. For this same view of the sky, face south at about 11:00pm in early July and 10:00pm in mid-July.
Jimmy Westlake/Courtesy photo

When the last rays of the summer sun fade from the evening sky, the misty star clouds of the Milky Way come into view, arching high overhead like a colorless rainbow. Follow this milky path down to the south and there you will find the zodiacal constellation of Sagittarius, the Archer.

Our ancient ancestors imagined a centaur in these stars — half man, half horse — holding a bow and arrow aimed at the heart of the nearby Scorpion. I challenge anyone to look at those stars and find a centaur holding a bow and arrow. Instead, most modern sky watchers find it much easier to imagine the outline of a teapot, formed from eight prominent stars. The steamy star clouds of the Milky Way seem to be boiling right out of the teapot’s spout, as it tips over to pour its scalding-hot contents onto the tail of the Scorpion to the west.

Scorpius the Scorpion is shaped like a giant fishhook. His heart is marked by the red giant star Antares, the brightest star in the southern sky. The two prominent stinger stars at the tip of the Scorpion’s tail are sometimes called the Cat’s Eyes.



Just west of Scorpius is another constellation of the zodiac, Libra the Scales. Two thousand years ago, the stars of Libra belonged to Scorpius, forming his enormous pincers. Libra’s two brightest stars still bear their ancient Arabic names, Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali, meaning the Southern and Northern Claws of the Scorpion.

Standing over Scorpius is the celestial witch doctor named Ophiuchus. In his hands, he holds the serpent that taught him the secret of bringing the dead back to life. Serpens is the only constellation that is split into two unconnected parts, sort of like the state of Michigan is split in two. Serpens Caput is the half with the snake’s head and Serpens Cauda is the snake’s tail.



All of these constellations are linked mythologically to our wintertime constellation of Orion the Hunter. After Orion bragged that he could kill every animal on Earth if he wanted to, Scorpius ambushed Orion and stung him on the foot, killing the mighty hunter. Sagittarius sought to avenge Orion’s murder by hunting down the Scorpion and shooting him with his bow and arrow. Ophiuchus managed to bring Orion back from the dead with the magic herb that the Serpent revealed to him. Zeus placed Scorpius and Orion in opposite parts of the sky so the two could never be seen at the same time. Ophiuchus stands on top of Scorpius to symbolize his power over the Scorpion’s deadly sting. Sagittarius relentlessly chases the Scorpion across the sky, poking the Scorpion with his pointy arrow.

One more prominent constellation occupies our summer southern sky – Aquila the Eagle. Look for the bright star Altair, flanked on either side by slightly fainter stars, reminiscent of the three stars of Orion’s Belt.

For information about astronomy-related events in Steamboat Springs, including public star parties at CMC’s Ball Observatory, contact physics and astronomy instructor Paul McCudden, at pmccudden@coloradomtn.edu or 970-870-4537 or visit the SKY Club web page at http://www.coloradomtn.edu/skyclub.

Jimmy Westlake is adjunct Professor of Physical Sciences at Colorado Mountain College and former Director of the Rollins Planetarium at Young Harris College in Georgia and the St. Charles Parish Library Planetarium, in Luling, Louisiana. His “Celestial News” column appears monthly in the Steamboat Today newspaper. Check out Jimmy’s astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.


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