In June 2012 Stargazing Part 1, we looked at the Summer Triangle constellations and the shifting position of the northern-sky constellations. Today we will look at the southern view, and consider Sagittarius, Scorpius, Libra, Ophiuchus, and Serpens.
Sagittarius sticks close to the horizon and is a Centaurian Archer. At mid-northern latitudes and above (I’m at about 47N), some of the stars are cut off from view, but, really, the brightest part of him is an asterism called The Teapot, so we’ll just focus on that. Sorry, Centaurian Archer–but the teapot thing is still really cool! It’s easy to pick out, and you can sing “I’m A Little Teapot” with your kids with only a few alterations to the end of the verse.
To the right of Sagittarius is Scorpius. Scorpius has a red star at its heart with a gently-curved line of stars to its right (or slightly above-right, depending on the time of night or time of year). This curvy line is the front where the claws of the scorpion would be. Leftward and down is the curly body and tail with the stinger on the end. The full curve of the tail is cut off for observers at and above mid-northern latitudes.
If you look later in the June nights (2 a.m.), or earlier in the evenings but later in the season of summer, more of Sagittarius is revealed, and the scorpion starts to lay down on the horizon.
The Milky Way comes between Sagittarius and Scorpius, and the center of the galaxy lies in this direction as well, so if you can point out these constellations to your kids, you can also tell them that when they are looking this way, they are looking at the center of our galaxy.
To the right of Scorpius is Libra, a faint, rectangular constellation which at one time was associated with the claws of the scorpion. Two of my favorite star names are in Libra: Zubenelgenubi (Zoo-ben-el-jen-oo-bee, the “southern claw”) and Zubeneschamali (Zoo-ben-es-sha-mah-lee, the “northern claw”).
You can challenge your kids to say those star names 10 times fast and see how they do!
Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer is over here, too, on top of Scorpius, and he is holding Serpens the Serpent. Ophiuchus has a large, tall pentagon shape to him, and to either side twists Serpens. In a rather unique arrangement, Ophiuchus actually separates Serpens into two parts, although Serpens is considered just one constellation. The left side (to the east) is Serpens Cauda, the tail, and to the right (west) is Serpens Caput, the head. Ophiuchus actually crosses the ecliptic plane–the path in the sky that the sun, moon, and planets appear to travel along–so it is actually a 13th zodiacal constellation. Ophiuchus is situated behind the sun between November 29 and December 17. If you really want to rile up an astrologer, call Ophiuchus the 13th sign of the zodiac–they tend to not like that at all.
Here are a couple of tips for spotting the Ophiuchus pentagonoid:
- A line drawn from Vega to Antares will almost bisect Ophiuchus.
- A line drawn from Altair to Arcturus crosses through the top point star of Ophiuchus. (This line may have to dip downward in a slightly curving line for this to really work.)
Happy summer stargazing!