Sunday, August 15, 2010

Scutum the Shield

Not all of the constellations are ancient. In fact many of them were named in the 1600s for scientific instruments or newly discovered, exotic animals. One of the strangest ones is called Scutum the Shield. The Shield is not very bright but can found between Ophiuchus and Aquila and above Sagittarius.

Scutum was originally named "Sobieski's Shield" by the astronomer Johannes Hevelius. Hevelius loved charting the faintest of stars and created 7 constellations overlooked by the ancient Greeks. He was also known for having a 145 foot long telescope - one of the longest telescopes ever made. After Hevelius' observatory burned down, the King of Poland, John Sobieski, financed the rebuilding of a new observatory. Hevelius was so moved that he honored his patron by naming a bit of sky (though mostly empty of stars) after him.

Upon closer examination (with the aid of a telescope), there are tons of stars in Scutum. The Shield lies in a particularly think swath of the Milky Way. Just beyond 20/20 vision these stars are near the heart of our galaxy.

Not all of Hevelius' constellations made it to modern star charts. He named one group of stars after Cerberus, the Three-Headed Hound of the Underworld. How could the astronomers leave "Fluffy" out of the sky!?!

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Ophiuchus the Seprent Bearer

Ophiuchus looks like a long stretched out pentagon in the southwestern sky. Connect a line from Deneb through Vega and you will run into Ras Alhague, the brightest star in Ophiuchus.

Ras Alhague is an Arabic word meaning “Head of the Serpent Charmer”. Just to the right is another star in the constellation Hercules called Ras Algethi, or “Head of the Giant”. So we have two men bumping heads in the heavens! Ophiuchus is lucky. He gets to stand right-side up, while Hercules flies through the sky upside-down.

Many legends say that this group of stars forms a man holding a huge snake. You really have to use your imagination to see that. The Greeks believed this wrestler was named Asklepios. He was the god and inventor of medicine and was so gifted that he could even restore the dead to life.

Asklepios learned this trick from snakes. Once when he was making a house call to a sick patient, a serpent slithered into the room and coiled around his walking stick. Asklepios, slightly scared of snakes, quickly killed it. A few minutes later a second serpent crawled under the door carrying an odd herb in its fanged mouth. The second serpent went over to the dead one, applied the herb, and restored the snake to life. What was the magical herb? Who knows? But from that moment on Asklepios always carried a staff with a serpent wrapped around it. It became the symbol for the medical arts still in use today.

Asklepios quickly learned to make his own resurrection juice to bring back any lost patients. And later that month he even came to his buddy Orion's aid. As described in the Orion myth, the gods sent a scorpion to humble Orion's boasting - by killing him. Well, that sure showed him! But in another version of the myth, Asklepios was called to the scene of the crime to work his doctorly deeds. Not only did Asklepios raise Orion to life but he even dispatched the scorpion by squishing it under his sandaled foot.

Notice from the picture at the top that Ophiuchus is standing on the Scorpion. And he doesn't seem scared of that large serpent coiled around him. We'll learn his fate next week...