By Mike P. Usher
As Mars and Saturn sink towards the western horizon, leaving the evening sky planet-less until October, look instead to the south and view Ophiuchus. Ophiuchus, also known as the serpent-bearer, is a large constellation situated above the Milky Way and dipping all the way down to the ecliptic – making it the thirteenth zodiacal constellation. This fact is ignored in astrological columns for some reason even though the constellation has been recognized since ancient times. The constellation is usually depicted in old artworks as a man holding a very large snake, something like a huge boa constrictor or python.
The serpent Ophiuchus bears is called Serpens and is the only constellation in the sky that is split into two parts. Serpens Caput (head) on the west side of Ophiuchus and Serpens Cauda (tail) on the east side. It’s a rather dim constellation and rather hard to pick out in suburban skies. The tail of Serpens lies up against the excessively dim constellation of Scutum, the shield, a modern constellation dating from the 1600’s designed mostly as a space filler. Scutum’s main distinction is that it is the only constellation based on a historical personage; the original name, in English, was Shield of Sobieski – a Polish hero.
Although the constellations are unspectacular and rather dim, this region of the sky is stuffed with interesting binocular objects. In the northeastern corner of Scutum is the Wild Duck cluster; so named as the brighter stars look something like a flock of ducks in flight. Between Scutum and Serpens are several objects, the most famous being the Eagle Nebula. The Eagle Nebula is the home of the so called “Pillars of Creation”, the most famous Hubble Telescope photograph. Don’t expect to see that kind of detail with your binoculars though! Just a little to the south of the Eagle is the Omega Nebula, so called as some observers claim to see the shape of the Greek letter Omega, others see a swan. All along the boundary between Serpens, Scutum and Sagittarius are numerous star clusters. Inside Ophiuchus there are a couple of modestly bright globular clusters M10 and M12. Seven or eight other, fainter globulars are also in this general region of the sky.
See you next time!
Mr. Usher is President of the Everglades Astronomical Society which meets the second Tuesday each month during the summer at 7:00 PM in the Books-A-Million, at the Mercato, Naples.