Sat. Feb 24th, 2024
Tight, bright collection of stars in the sky

In last month’s constellation post, we introduced Boötes the Shepherd, Virgo the Maiden, and Libra the Scales.

This month we will discuss the constellations of Hercules, Ophiuchus and Serpentines.

Ophiuchus

constellations: Hercules, Corona Borealis, Ophischus, Serpent's Head, Serpent's Tail

Those within the medical discipline are very familiar with the symbol that has come to represent their craft: a staff surrounded by two snakes coiled lengthwise. This symbol, the caduceus, reminds us of the ancient Greek legend about the origin of modern medicine.

A long time ago, Asclepius, son of Apollo, encountered a snake, which he seriously injured by hitting it with his staff. Another snake brought herbs and put them on top of the wound, after which the wounded snake seemed to gather strength and slipped into the bushes with her friend. From this encounter, it is said that Asclepius learned the medicinal arts.

The constellation Ophiuchus, the serpent bearer, represents the healer Asclepius.

But shouldn’t I have a snake nearby? In fact, it does…

A snake

Near Ophiuchus (which actually passes through it), is the constellation Serpens. Serpens has three main parts: Serpens Caput represents the head, Serpens Cauda represents the tail, and the body is located within the Ophiuchus itself.

constellations: Hercules, Corona Borealis, Ophischus, Serpent's Head, Serpent's Tail

Just below Serpens Caput is the globular star cluster M5. We’ll talk more about globular clusters below, in the section on M13.

Above Ophiuchus and Serpens stands the famous hero of ancient Greco-Roman tradition: Hercules (or Heracles in Greek).

Hercules

The Hercules constellation is ancient even by Greek standards. Two Greeks who lived almost 2,500 years ago, Eudoxus and Aratus, are largely responsible for the ancient Greeks learning about the much older Sumerian/Babylonian constellations (dating back to between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago). There is evidence to suggest that the original Hercules constellation was not known by that name, but was placed there by Eratosthenes about a hundred years after Aratus.

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Hercules was the son of Zeus, but Hera, Zeus’s wife, looked down on him negatively and tried to make life difficult for her mortal stepson. To atone for his sins, Hercules undertook 12 “impossible” tasks (jobs). During this time, the Oracle of Delphi changed Hercules’ name to Heracles, meaning “glory of Hera.”

constellations: Hercules, Corona Borealis, Ophischus, Serpent's Head, Serpent's Tail

Four brighter stars form a parallelogram known as “the keystone of Hercules.” Towards the top right is a beautiful object known as M13.

M13 is known as a globular star cluster, a cluster made up of hundreds of thousands of stars about 22,000 light years away.

Dense and bright collection of stars in the sky. Globular star cluster, M13

Despite all its impressive tasks and great power, the Hercules constellation is actually one of the smallest in the sky.

Corona Boreal – the Northern Crown

Just west of Hercules is the beautiful U-shaped pattern of the Corona Borealis or the “Northern Crown”. This distinctive star pattern was thought to be the crown that Dionysus gave to the Cretan princess Ariadne as a wedding gift. After the wedding, Dionysus threw it into the stars where the jewels shine today like stars in the sky.

Ready to look at the sky?

Check out our monthly astronomical highlights for a guided tour of this month’s night skies.