Late summer is the best time to catch sight of the most dramatic of mythical creatures in the night sky – the Scorpion. Known officially as Scorpius (often incorrectly referred to as Scorpio), it’s one of the few patterns of brighter stars that actually resembles the creature it’s supposed to represent. It’s also one of the true celestial celebrities being a member of the 12 zodiacal constellations associated with horoscope signs. According to ancient Greek legend Scorpius killed Orion in a great battle by stinging him in the heel. As a result it was placed in the sky as far away as possible from the great hunter, so as to protect him from further mishap. That’s why we find Scorpius shining brightly in the summer sky while Orion dominates the winter nights.
The main body of this cosmic arachnoid is formed by a line of glittering stars dipping down to the southern horizon with its tail curving back up the sky to form its starry stinger. From bright suburban skies you may find it easier to recognize this association of stars forming a giant slanted letter ‘J’. Hawaiian fisherman looked at this stellar group and saw a dangling Fish Hook – another easily recognized and widely used landmark. Be aware however that if your observing site is above 40 degree latitude, you will likely find the bottom of the tail or hook obstructed because of its proximity to the local horizon.
Crawling through the low southern skies throughout late summer nights, Scorpius can easily be tracked down by its brilliant heart, the constellation’s brightest star – orange-hued Antares. It’s name means the ‘Rival of Mars’ since it reminded ancient astronomers of the Red planet, which looks very similar in the sky. Despite Antares being located just over a whopping 600 light years from us it still ranks as the 16th brightest star in the entire sky. Astronomers classify it as a red super giant star – and for good reason. Antares’ shines 10,000 times brighter than our puny Sun and has a diameter that is truly monstrous- 800 times bigger than the Sun.
Finally rounding out our quick to of Scorpio’s highlights, use your binoculars to scan over to the lead star Antares. The Cat’s eye is seen easily with binoculars but really shows off through a telescope. It is a true metropolis of stars, easily containing 10,000 residents. Sitting at about 7000 light years away it is one of the cloest examples of a globular cluster. Because of its proximity even a small telescope can easily resolve some of its stars swarming near its core. It gets its name from the strange distinct bar-like structure that appears to cut across its centre – making it appear like a feline eye looking back at you in the eyepiece.
Tags: Antares, Butterly Cluster, Cat's Eye, Fish Hook, M4, M6, M7, Ptolemy's Cluster, Scorpius
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