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Man must rise above the Earth, to the top of the atmosphere and beyond, for only then will he fully understand the world in which he lives.
Socrates, 469 - 399 BC


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The Serpent Bearer

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Ophiuchus - Celestial Atlas by Alexander Jamieson - 1822

To the Greeks he was Asclepius, the son of Apollo, and the god of medicine. He was raised by the wise and benevolent centaur (half man, half horse) Chiron, depicted by the constellation Centaurus. Chiron taught Asclepius the art of healing. He became so skilled in medicine, King Minos of Crete called upon him to try to help his young son Glaucus, who had fallen into a large jar of honey and appeared to have drowned.

By the time Asclepius arrived, the boy was dead. But as he stood over the body, he noticed a snake crawling towards him, and he killed it with his staff. Then another snake arrived, carrying a herb in its mouth, which it laid on the body of the dead snake. Miraculously, the dead snake came back to life, and when Asclepius applied some of the herb to the body of Glaucas, he came back to life as well.

Hades (Pluto), god of the underworld, felt he'd been robbed of a soul, and complained to his brother Zeus (Jupiter), king of the gods, and Zeus appeased his brother by killing Asclepius with a thunderbolt. Apollo, of course, was upset that his son had been killed, so Zeus mollified Apollo by placing the image of Asclepius amongst the stars. The magical snake who had started all the trouble was placed in his hands, and Asclepius became Ophiuchus, the serpent bearer.

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Ophiuchus - August 1, 10:00 PM - Latitude 40° North, Longitude 95° West

And there is even more to the story. Since the snake had shown Asclepius how to raise the dead - the ultimate form of healing - it became a powerful symbol of healing which survives to this day. Ancient statues of Asclepius show him holding a staff with a snake entwined around it. The staff of Asclepius, complete with snake, is now the international symbol of the medical profession, and has been incorporated into the logos of many major health organizations, including the World Health Organization.

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In modern times, the staff of Asclepius has been confused with the caduceus of Hermes (Mercury), which is a short winged rod with a pair of vipers circling it, as shown below. The caduceus was the symbol of Hermes, the messenger of the gods, guide of the dead and protector of merchants, gamblers, liars and thieves. The symbolism of the caduceus renders it particularly inappropriate as a medical logo. Despite this fact, grossly misinformed or ignorant U. S. military officials adopted the caduceus as the official logo of the medical corps in World War One, helping in no small way to perpetuate the confusion regarding the two symbols today.

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The snake is significant enough to warrant two constellations of its own, Serpens Caput and Serpens Cauda (the serpent's head and the serpent's tail), but it also forms an integral part of the constellation of Ophiuchus, which can be seen as three constellations in one.

To further complicate matters, there is in fact a fourth constellation within the boundaries of Ophiuchus. It is a small grouping of stars first catalogued by Martin Poczobut, director of the Royal Observatory at Vilna (now Vilnius, Lithuania). Noting their similarity to the Hyades that mark the face of the bull in the constellation Taurus, he named the constellation Taurus Poniatovii, (Poniatowski's Bull), to honor Stanislaus Poniatowski, king of Poland. The constellation was added to the star charts of the time, and persisted for more than a century before it was dropped, and the stars re-absorbed by Ophiuchus. The obsolete figure can be seen on Jamieson's 1822 star atlas at the top of the page.

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Stars of Ophiuchus

Rasalhague (RA: 17h34m56.188s DE:+1233'32.65")

Alpha Ophiuchi is the brightest star in the constellation, named Rasalhague, Arabic for head of the serpent charmer. It is an A5V white main sequence star with a faint, close companion that orbits it every 8.7 years. With a magnitude of 2.08, it is one of the closer star systems to Earth, only 46.7 light years away.

Cebalrai (RA: 17h43m28.310s DE:+0434'04.75")

Beta Ophiuchi is named Cebalrai, which means the shepherd's heart (or dog), from early Arab visions of a shepherd tending his flock in this area. It is a K2III yellow/orange giant with a magnitude of 2.76, about 82 light years away.

Sabik (RA: 17h10m22.730s DE:-1543'28.12")

With a magnitude of 2.43, Eta Ophiuchi is the second brightest star in the constellation, named Sabik, Arabic for the preceding one, although what exactly it is preceding is a mystery. It is a close binary system, comprised of two almost identical A2V white main sequence stars that orbit each other every 88 years. The system is located about 84 light years away.

Zeta Ophiuchi (RA: 16h37m09.555s DE:-1034'01.14")

At magnitude 2.54, Zeta Ophiuchi is the third brightest star in the constellation. Although sometimes known by its Chinese name of "Han", it is generally left unnamed on western star charts. It is a significant star however, a very hot O9V blue main sequence star with a surface temperature of 32,500 degrees K (compared to our Sun at 6,000 degrees). With a mass 20 times larger than the Sun, it is an astounding 68,000 times brighter, allowing it to attain second magnitude even from a distance of 460 light years.

In addition to its great size and luminosity, it is also a "runaway star" speeding through space at the breakneck speed of 54,000 mph (24 kilometers per second), creating a spectacular "bow shock" within a vast cloud of dust and gas that surrounds it. Theory suggests it once had an equally massive companion that went supernova, creating the debris cloud and expelling Zeta Ophiuchi onto its runaway course.

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Zeta Ophuichi Bow Shock - Spitzer Space Telescope - Infrared - December, 2012

Nu Ophiuchi (RA: 17h59m01.583s DE:-0946'26.86")

Although Nu Ophiuchi is left unnamed by both Allen and Burnham, as well as most star charts, the name "Sinistra" keeps popping up, apparently meaning the left side (despite being on the figure's right side). It is a K1III yellow/orange giant with a magnitude of 3.32, about 151 light years away. Two bodies have been discovered in orbit around this star, both more than 20 times larger than Jupiter. Initially designated as massive gas giant planets, their large mass has many astronomers suggesting they are small, dead, brown dwarf stars, sparking worldwide debate on the issue.

Yed Prior (RA: 16h14m20.688s DE:-0341'41.79")

Delta Ophiuchi is Yed Prior, the front of the hand. It is an M0III red giant with a magnitude of 2.73, about 171 light years away.

Yed Posterior (RA: 16h18m19.376s DE:-0441'32.39")

Epsilon Ophiuchi is Yed Posterior, the back of the hand. It is a G9III yellow/orange giant with a magnitude of 3.23, about 107 light years away.

Marfic (RA: 16h30m54.807s DE:+0159'00.62")

Lambda Ophiuchi is Marfic, from the Arabic for elbow. It is a binary system, consisting of two A class white main sequence stars with a combined magnitude of 3.82, about 173 light years away.

Barnard's Star - TYC 425-2502-1 (RA: 17h57m47.665s DE:+0444'15.96")

Barnard's Star is the second closest star to Earth. A mere 6.0 light years away, only the triple star system of Alpha Centauri is closer, at 4.37 light years. It is a small, dim, M4 red dwarf, and even though it is so close, it can only manage a magnitude of 9.35, well beyond visual reach, and a challenge to find in a small telescope. Barnard's Star also has the distinction of being the fastest known star, speeding through space at over 300,000 mph (139 kms per second).

Planets of Ophiuchus

Gliese 1214 - LHS 3275(RA: 17h15m18.94s DE:+0457'49.7")

There are eighteen stars (so far) in Ophiuchus that have been found to possess planets. All the stars are beyond visual range, and all the planets are rather inhospitable gas giants, with two exceptions. The first is the easily visible Nu Ophiuchi and its two planet/dwarf satellites as mentioned above. The second exception is a star only 40 light years away with a super Earth planet. The star is a very small, very dim M4 red dwarf with a magnitude of 14.67, named Gliese 1214 (GJ 1214) and the planet is about six times the size of Earth, named Gliese 1214b (GJ 1214b). The planet orbits quite close to the relatively cool red star, and in 2012 the Hubble Space Telescope discovered the presence of water on the planet - a key ingredient for the development of life as we know it.

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Gliese 1214b (GJ 1214b) - Artist Concept - NASA, ESA, and D. Aguilar - February, 2012

Deep Skies of Ophiuchus

M9 (RA: 17h19m 12.0s DE:-1831'00")

Ophiuchus has seven Messier objects, and they are all globular clusters. In numerical order, we begin with M9 (NGC 6333), with a magnitude of 7.9, about 25,800 light years away.

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M9 (NGC 6333) - Globular Cluster - Hubble Space Telescope - March, 2012

M10 (RA: 16h57m06.0s DE:-0406'00")

M10 (NGC 6254) is much closer and brighter, and a good target for a small telescope. It is 14,300 light years away with a magnitude of 6.6.

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M10 (NGC 6254) - Globular Cluster - Hubble Space Telescope - June, 2012

M12 (RA: 16h47m 12.0s DE:-0157'00")

Not quite as bright at magnitude 6.1, M12 (NGC 6218) is 15,700 light years away.

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M12 (NGC 6218) - Globular Cluster - Hubble Space Telescope - March, 2011

M107 (RA: 16h32m 30.0s DE:-1303'00")

Dimmer still at magnitude 7.8 is M107 (NGC 6171), 20,900 light years away.

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M107 (NGC 6171) - Globular Cluster - Hubble Space Telescope - July, 2012

NGC 6384 (RA: 17h32m 24.0s DE:+0704'00")

Ophiuchus also contains the barred spiral galaxy, NGC 6384, about 60 million light years away, with a magnitude of 10.4.

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NGC 6384 - Spiral Galaxy - Hubble Space Telescope - February, 2011

The Missing 13th Constellation of the Zodiac

Ophiuchus is situated on the ecliptic, the path the Sun, Moon, and planets all follow across the sky. There are 13 constellations that lie on the ecliptic, and the Sun, Moon and planets pass through all of them. These are the constellations of the zodiac, which figure so prominently in the pseudo-science of astrology. However, astrology only recognizes 12 of these constellations. Even though the bodies of our solar system spend more time in Ophiuchus than in many of the other constellations, it is not included in the classic twelve "signs" of the zodiac.

Winter: Orion   Canis Major   Canis Minor   Monoceros   Lepus   Eridanus   Taurus   Auriga   Camelopardalis   Lynx   Gemini   Cancer  
Spring: Hydra   Sextans   Crater   Corvus   Leo   Leo Minor   Ursa Major   Ursa Minor   Canes Venatici   Coma Berenices   Virgo   Bootes  
Summer: Draco   Corona Borealis   Hercules   Ophiuchus   Serpens   Libra   Scorpius   Sagittarius   Scutum   Aquila   Sagitta   Vulpecula   Lyra   Cygnus  
Autumn: Andromeda   Perseus   Pegasus   Cassiopeia   Cepheus   Cetus   Lacerta   Delphinus   Equuleus   Capricornus   Aquarius   Pisces   Aries   Triangulum  
Southern Skies: Centaurus   Crux   Lupus   Corona Australis   Piscis Australis   Sculptor   Tucana   Fornax   Dorado   Columba   Puppis   Carina   Vela  

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