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The Snake Charmer


by Ellis Myers

Ophiuchus is the thirteenth of the twelve constellations of the Zodiac. It is the forgotten constellation, perhaps, for the Sun actually spends more time before the stars of Ophiuchus (19 days) than it does in neighboring Scorpius (6 days). Also, the stars in this area of the sky are less than magnificent. There are only four stars brighter than magnitude three. Alpha, Ras Alhague, is a magnitude 2.1 star somewhat less than midway on the line from Vega toward Antares. Eta Ophiuchi, Zeta, and Beta follow at 2.6, 2.7 and 2.9 magnitude. These stars can be found above Scorpius and below the stars of Hercules. The center of the constellation crosses the meridian at about 11 pm in early July.

There are six Messier star clusters in this area of the sky: 9, 10, 12, 14, 19 and 62. Another, M107, requires a telescope for study. Still other globular clusters exist in this region, making 22 in all. A number of double stars are here, too, including Sabik (Eta Ophiuchi), a pair of third-magnitude stars separated by one second. 70 Ophiuchi is another interesting multiple star; the colors are said to be yellow and purple. This star system was discovered in 1779 by Sir William Herschel. It is part of an olden asterism made up with other stars in this region of Ophiuchus. The stars form a "V" suggestive of the Hyades in Taurus. In 1777, a Polish astronomer, Abbé Poczobut of Wilna, asked the French Academy to honor the last Polish king, King Stanislaus Poniatowski, with a constellation. The designation did not last, although "Poniatowski's Bull" may still be found on some star charts.

Æsculapius, an immortal man who had been schooled by the centaur Chiron in the arts of botany and medicine, knew of various herbs and plants and was a student of nature. One day he was in the house of a friend when he killed a snake. He watched in astonishment when another snake slithered into the room with a particular herb in its mouth and with it restored the dead reptile to life. Recognizing the plant, Æsculapius soon had learned to use its mystical powers to heal the sick and resurrect the dead. It is from this history and from the ability of a snake to cast off its skin and assume a new revitalization that serpents have become symbols for healing. The staff of Æsculapius, with a snake coiling about the rod, is well known in today's medicine. This symbol is often confused with Mercury's caduceus, a doubly-winged wand entwined by two snakes. Æsculapius, the first doctor, sailed on the famous voyage of the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece. After the journey, he continued to heal the sick and to advance the practice of medicine. On the death of Orion, he was about to attempt to restore the life of this great hero when Pluto, lord of the underworld, intervened. Pluto reasoned that his realm would decline if Æsculapius were allowed to revive the dead. He appealed to his brother Jupiter to agree that death should be the ultimate end of mortal man, not to be trifled with even by the most skilled of physicians. Jupiter, king of the gods, struck Æsculapius with a thunderbolt and ended his life on Earth. But in tribute to the accomplishments and skill of the great physician, Jupiter placed him among the stars, where today he is known as Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer. Antiquated star maps show a larger constellation, depicting the physician clutching the serpent that wraps about his body or shoulders. Now, however, the serpent itself is represented and is given two identities. Stars to the west are those of the head, Serpens Caput, while the tail section, Serpens Cauda, writhes eastward toward Aquila.

Ophiuchus, not so well known as neighboring Scorpius or Sagittarius of the Zodiac constellations, has much to draw your attention.


One of the most interesting objects that you can't see in Ophiuchus is the Pipe Nebula. On dark, clear nights this absorption nebula stands prominently in front of the spectacular Milky Way. It is one of the largest dark-cloud formations that can (cannot?) be seen from the Northern Hemisphere. Axel Mellinger photographed the Pipe Nebula from the crisp, clear skies of the White Mountains east of the Sierra during an EAS summer star party. Please find a remarkable collection of Axel's work at his site.

 


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