Scorpius the Scorpion is a summertime delight

Star chart: Scorpius, a J-shaped constellation, with some stars labeled, on a blue background.
The constellation Scorpius the Scorpion. If you have a dark sky, look for M4, a globular star cluster, near Antares.

Scorpius is among the most distinctive of constellations in the zodiac. With a little imagination, you can see its stars tracing the shape of a scorpion. The brilliant red star Antares lies at the Scorpion’s Heart. The constellation has the shape of the letter J, with the curved bottom of the J representing the Scorpion’s curved Tail. There’s even a Stinger, consisting of two stars – Shaula and Lesath – noticeable for their nearness to each other.

In a dark sky, you can also see many beautiful deep sky treasures – and the starry band of our home galaxy, the Milky Way – in the same part of the sky as Scorpius.

Stars in the constellation Scorpius with part of the nebulous Milky Way in the background.
A photo of Scorpius, taken by astrophotographer Akira Fujii. Image via Akira Fuji/ ESA.

How to find Scorpius

For evening viewing, July and August are prime-time months for observing this wondrous constellation. In the Northern Hemisphere, we associate the ruby star Antares – or Ant-Ares, the “rival” of Mars – with the hot summer season. And you might have your own associations with this star at this season. I personally associate Antares with the blooming of wild cardinal flowers on my favorite hiking trail.

As the summer season wanes for us in this hemisphere, Antares’ fading into the southwestern dusk signals the cooler days of autumn.

In early July, in either the Northern or Southern Hemisphere, Scorpius climbs to its highest point in the sky at about 10 p.m. your local time (11 p.m. local daylight time). Because the stars return to the same place in the sky about 1/2 hour earlier with each passing week, look for the celestial Scorpion to be at its highest, in mid-July, around 9 p.m. your local time (10 p.m. local daylight time), and by late July around 8 p.m. your local time (9 p.m. local daylight time).

As seen from mid-northern latitudes, such as the central U.S., Scorpius’ arc is low across the southern sky. But Scorpius’ bright red star Antares can be seen as far north as southern Alaska.

Very dense star field with Milky Way in nebulous colors and dark dust lanes, with two large reddish dots.
The name Antares means “rival to Ares,” Ares being the Greek name for the Roman war god Mars. Antares – brightest star in Scorpius – is similar in color and brightness to Mars, when Mars is at its best, as it was in 2016. Astrophotographer Alan Dyer captured red Mars (above) and red Antares (below) that year, from Coonabarabran, Australia. At that time, Mars was brighter than Antares! Also, see the white “star” to the left of the 2 “rivals”? That’s the planet Saturn. Image via Alan Dyer / Used with permission.

The Scorpion in mythology

In Greek mythology, it’s said that vain Orion the Hunter grew boastful about his hunting skills. He claimed there was no animal on Earth he couldn’t kill. When Orion began bragging he would kill every animal, the Earth goddess Gaia sent Scorpius the Scorpion to sting and kill Orion. And thus Scorpius and Orion became mortal enemies. It’s said that the king of the gods, Zeus, placed Orion and the Scorpion in the heavens in such a way that the two enemies would never meet.

That’s why – according to legend – you can never see these two constellations in the same sky together. Orion only rises after Scorpius has set. And the reverse is also true: Scorpius doesn’t rise until Orion’s departure. And thus when the Scorpion is at its peak in visibility in the evening sky – high in the sky on late July or early August evenings – Orion is just returning to the east before sunrise.

Read more: Orion the Hunter returns before dawn

More sky lore

People at southerly latitudes have different legends regarding Scorpius, which appears higher in the sky there. According to the Hawaiian Astronomical Society:

In Hawaii, we know Scorpius as the demigod Maui’s Fishhook. One day Maui went fishing with his brothers in their outrigger canoe. He brought with him a magic fishhook, instructing his brothers that whatever he caught with it, they were to continue paddling and never look back. Maui caught a huge object and asked his brothers to paddle harder while he pulled the line. As Maui hauled, many rocks appeared. The more he pulled, the more rocks appeared.

Finally, he pulled hard enough that the large chunks of land surfaced from the ocean. His brothers, tired from all the rowing, and curious about Maui’s catch, looked back. One of the brothers called out, ‘Look, Maui is pulling up land!’ Furious, Maui responded, ‘Fools! Had you not looked back, these islands would have been a great land.’ We now know these islands as Hawaii. New Zealanders tell a similar story about Maui and their land.

Today, Maui’s fish hook is popularly known as a magical item that appears in the Disney film Moana.

Sun’s passage in front of Scorpius

Given Scorpius’ great prominence in the sky, it’s ironic that the sun spends less time in front of the Scorpion than any other constellation of the zodiac. Each year, the sun shines in the constellation Scorpius for a week, from about November 22 through November 29. If these dates seem to be in conflict with what you read on a horoscope page, remember that astrologers are referring to the sign Scorpio, not the constellation Scorpius.

Astrologically speaking, when the sun reaches a point on the ecliptic – the sun’s yearly pathway in front of the stars – that’s 30 degrees to 60 degrees east of the September equinox point, then the sun is said to be in the sign Scorpio. That’s irrespective of which constellation or constellations lie behind the sun in the sky at this time. The sun passes through the sign Scorpio (not the constellation Scorpius) from about October 23 to November 21. But, in the sky, the sun is in front of the constellations Virgo and then Libra during this same time period.

The astrological signs remain fixed relative to the solstice and equinox points. But, in the sky, these seasonal markers slowly shift westward relative to the constellations, or backdrop stars. Some 5,000 years ago, for instance, the star Antares marked the Northern Hemisphere’s autumnal equinox point. In our day, Antares and the sun have their annual conjunction on or near December 1. That’s about three weeks before the December 21 solstice. Antares will mark the December solstice point some 1,500 years from now.

A star map showing the stars in Scorpius with stars in black on white.
A star chart for Scorpius. Image via International Astronomical Union and Sky & Telescope/ Wikimedia Commons.

Who decides constellation boundaries

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) – a global body of professional astronomers – took it upon itself to define boundaries of the 88 official constellations in 1930. And so the sun has been destined to spend only a week in front of Scorpius yearly ever since.

As the boundaries are presently defined, the sun spends close to three weeks in front of the constellation Ophiuchus (November 29-December 18). Ophiuchus is the constellation immediately to the north of Scorpius. Note on the sky chart above that the IAU chose to draw most of the Ophiuchus-Scorpius border to the south of the ecliptic. Had the IAU chosen to draw the border to the north of the ecliptic, then the sun’s duration within Scorpius would be closer to one month.

An antique painting of a green scorpion on a star chart.
Scorpius, as depicted in Urania’s Mirror, a set of star chart cards that were published in 1824. Image via Adam Cuerden/ Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Scorpius and the zodiac

Early astronomers used key stars and easy-to-recognize star patterns (constellations) to track the motions of the sun, moon and planets upon the zodiac. That being the case, early astronomers were no doubt more inclined to use the “fixed” stars of Scorpius than of Ophiuchus for referencing the whereabouts of the wandering planets. After all, the ancients watched the red planet Mars pair up with the ruddy star Antares in recurring cycles. And so the Greeks saw Antares – Ant-Ares – as Mars’ rival.

Moreover, the moon routinely occults – passes in front of – Antares at certain stages in the moon’s 18.6-year cycle. The next series of Antares occultations will begin August 25, 2023. (For further information, check EarthSky’s visible planets and night sky guide.)

Bottom line: Scorpius the Scorpion traces a J-shaped pattern of stars, making it easy to identify. It is also home to the brilliant red star Antares.

The constellations of the Zodiac

Ophiuchus, the 13th zodiac constellation

July 23, 2023

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