Tonight, look for the faint constellation Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer. It appears in the southwest sky on late August and September evenings, above the bright ruddy star Antares, the brightest in the constellation Scorpius the Scorpion.
On our featured chart at top, we show the ecliptic – the sun’s path in front of the constellations, highlighting Scorpius and just the southern tip of Ophiuchus. This year, in 2016, the sun travels in front of the zodiacal constellation Scorpius from November 22 to November 29, and in front of the zodiacal constellation Ophiuchus from November 29 to December 18.
Tonight, note the two planets in the vicinity of Antares, both brighter than Scorpius’ brightest star. The brighter of these two planets, Mars, shines in front of Scorpius (though very close to the Scorpius-Ophiuchus border), whereas the golden-colored Saturn shines in front of the constellation Ophiuchus. Mars will pass into Ophiuchus by early September but Saturn will remain in front of Ophiuchus for the rest of this year.
The official boundary lines as displayed on the above chart were drawn up by the International Astronomical Union in the 1930s. The photo below of the constellation Ophiuchus labels Ophiuchus’ brightest star, Rasalhague, and Scorpius’ brightest star, Antares. Rasalhague marks the head of Ophiuchus but is nowhere as bright as Antares, the star that depicts the Scorpion’s beating heart.
The zodiac – or ‘pathway of animals’ – represents the rather narrow band of of sky astride the ecliptic, which is the plane of Earth’s orbit projected onto the sphere of stars. The signs of the zodiac are familiar to all who read online astrology advice. There are 12 familiar signs of the zodiac: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer and so on. Then there are the 13 constellations of the zodiac, which includes Ophiuchus. The sun moves in front of Ophiuchus from about November 30 to December 18 each year.
On sky maps, Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer is depicted as holding Serpens the Serpent, which is considered a separate constellation. According to ancient Greek star lore, Ophiuchus is Asclepius, the physician who concocted a healing potion from the Serpent’s venom, mixing it with the Gorgon’s blood and an unknown herb. This potion gave humans access to immortality, until the god of the underworld appealed to Zeus to reconsider the ramifications of the death of death.
Even today, the Staff of Asclepius – symbol of the World Heath Organization and other medical organizations – pays tribute to the constellation Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer.