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The Giant Scorpion of Summer

It's hard to say what the best constellation of summer is. There are a so many choices but one of my favorites is Scorpius the Scorpion. It really looks like a scorpion, not that we have a lot of terrestrial scorpions to compare it with crawling around Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Right now it's at its highest height in our southern skies as evening begins. But that's not all that high. The Scorpion is a low rider with its stinger barely above the horizon. You certainly won't crane your neck to see it and in fact unless you have a really low flat, treeless southern horizon you have no chance of seeing Scorpius's stinger. I think it's certainly worth going some place with a low flat horizon to see the business end of the celestial scorpion although even if you do that it's still a bit of a challenge because even in clear skies visibility is naturally hampered for stargazing that close to the horizon. You have to look through a lot more of Earth's blurring atmosphere. Moderate to heavy light pollution and a lot of humidity in the air add to visual challenge. If you're ever in the southern U.S. Scorpius will be a lot higher above the horizon and you can get a much better look at it.

None the less Scorpius is still very much worth your stargazing perusal. This coming week the growing ovalish gibbous moon on its way to being full next weekend will help you find the Scorpion. Our lunar neighbor will migrate from night to night eastward above the constellation.

It's the brightest star Antares positioned at the heart of the scorpion. Appropriately it has dark red ruddy hue to it, not because it's pumping blood to the beast's extremities but because it's what astronomer's call a super red giant star. And it's truly a behemoth! The Earth is about 8000 miles in diameter which is a dwarf compared to our sun's nearly million mile diameter. Our sun though is a pipsqueak compared to Antares spanning a diameter of nearly 700 million miles! If you kicked the sun out of the center of our solar system and replaced it with Antares the planets Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars would be living inside Antares! While it's one of the brighter stars in our night sky it could be a lot brighter if it wasn't so far away. Mapquest Antares and you'll find you need to journey almost 3500 trillion miles to get there.

Antares clearly demonstrates that stars aren't just little white lights. Many stars have a slight to distinctive hue to them that can tell you much about their nature. Quite simply just as it is with colors you see in a summer campfires, reddish flames are relatively cooler than blue-ish flames. Our own sun is a considered a yellowish white star with the temperature at its outer later, called the photosphere, at a little over a 10,000 degrees F. You won't need a jacket hanging out by Antares but it is cooler at just under 6000 degrees. Antares is in the process of slow death as its running out of nuclear fuel in its core. In the next billions year or maybe even a little sooner Antares will become so unstable that it'll blow itself to bit in tremendous supernova explosion and what's left of it will be spewed out in all directions, becoming the building block of future stars and planets.

Another interesting star in Scorpius is Graffias that makes up the head of the scorpion to the upper right of Antares. It's actually not one star but a double star and with even with a good pair of binoculars you can spot them. One of the stars has even has a lovely bluish green hue to it indicating that it's a much hotter star than Antares.

For extra credit take a small to moderate sized telescope and pan it just to the right of Antares and you'll see what looks like a fuzzy star. That's actually what astronomers call a globular cluster, a spherical collection of thousands
of stars crammed into a ball about 200 trillion miles in girth. This giant nuclear family of stars is over 6000 light years away with just one light year weighing in at almost six trillion miles! Through a moderate to larger telescope you might be able to see some of the individual stars at the outside edge of the cluster.

My favorite soap opera story in the sky involving Scorpio is the Greek mythology tale about how Zeus, the king of gods of Mount Olympus, sent a giant Scorpion to kill the mighty hunter Orion to end a torrid love affair he was having with Zeus's daughter Diana, the goddess of the moon. Orion hunted by night and slept by day, and while he was on his nocturnal hunting adventures he was noticed and admired by Diana as she dutifully led the moon across the sky. She would call down to the studly hunter and they would have long distance conversations. As time went on Diana eventually joined Orion on his hunting jaunts, ignoring her lunar duties.

Zeus learned of his daughters negligence and put a contract out on Orion. He had his staff send a giant scorpion to sting and kill Orion during his daytime slumber. When the fateful day arrived and the giant scorpion approached Orion, the ever-alert hunter woke up as the beast stirred up the nearby brush in its approach. Orion shot up and valiantly fought the scorpion with all his might but eventually he was stung by the steroid enhanced scorpion and died instantly.

That night Diana discovered the body of her boyfriend and was filled with tremendous grief. She managed to compose herself and lift Orion's body to the sky and transform it into the famous constellation we see during the winter evening. As she looked back down to Earth she saw the giant scorpion not all that far from where she found Orion. She put two and two together and decided to get revenge. She dive bombed the scorpion, picked it up and flung it up into the opposite direction of the sky from where her dead boyfriend was. That's why Orion and the Scorpion are never seen in the sky at the same time. Orion prowls the winter skies and Scorpius trolls the summer heavens. Orion won't get stung again!

Don't you stung by the hungry mosquitoes as you ponder the giant fishhook of the sky..

Diagram of the Scorpius...Click here