Tom Burns: Feel the scorpion’s sting

Tom Burns - Stargazing

Of all the constellations in the sky, Scorpius, the Scorpion, comes closest to looking like the figure it is supposed to represent. The effect is not a pleasant one. If you don’t believe me, check it out yourself.

As soon as it gets good and dark, the Scorpion stands its menacing watch over central Ohio low in the south. Of course, the “good and dark” above means “just around midnight” this time of year. Oo-ee-oo. Midnight.

That fact may not seem like cause for concern but, if you happen to be a certain hunter from ancient Greek mythology, you’re cowering in fear right now because the deadly Scorpion looms low in the south around the witching hour.

According to the old myths, Scorpion got in the sky in the first place because of its famous sting. At the end of a scorpion’s tail is a poisonous – and potentially deadly – surprise. Using its deadly stinger, our stellar Scorpion defeated the greatest of the ancient heroes, Orion, the mighty Hunter. However, the constellation Orion is nowhere to be found in the summer sky. You’ll have to wait until winter to see him, and therein resides the sting of the Scorpion’s tale.

Orion was well aware of his prowess as a hunter. One fateful day he boasted aloud that he could defeat any of the creatures on Earth. Unfortunately for our hapless hunter, Earth was listening. She existed in those days in the form of Gaea, or Mother Earth, out of whose great bounty arose all the creatures on the planet.

Out of a tiny crack in herself she allowed to scuttle a tiny scorpion, small by Orion’s standards but lethal nonetheless. The scorpion stung Orion on the heel and he died a rather painful and ignominious death. The vain Orion was not killed by a powerful tiger or ferocious bull. He was crushed by a larger-than-average bug.

Of course, the gods saw the whole event as an object lesson for humanity, so they decided to put the Hunter and the Scorpion in the heavens. That lesson is simple enough. Mother Nature is the greatest power on Earth because she is Earth. Above all, you don’t mess with Mom.

Orion wasn’t interested in being put on display in this way. Ironically, it was not shame but fear that caused him to balk at stellar immortality. He was simply scared silly of the scorpion. He finally agreed to be transformed into stars and raised up, but only if he and the Scorpion never appeared in the sky at the same time. Orion and Scorpius thus appear on opposite sides of the sky. Orion will not begin to rise in the southeast in the early evening sky until Scorpius is fully set in the southwest.

Luckily for humanity, the stellar scorpion still has its spectacular sting. Just where the stinger should be located are two beautiful clusters of stars called in the modern parlance M6 and M7.

Both clusters are visible to the unaided eye from dark, rural skies as fuzzy patches. At least one of them, M7, is so bright that its discovery probably happened in prehistoric times. The first mention in writing is of the clusters was by the great Greek astronomer Ptolemy during the second century A.D. He described them as “the nebulous ones that follow the Scorpion’s sting.”

By the 18th century, telescopes had gotten large enough to resolve these cloudy patches into beautiful collections of stars.

These days, M6, the smaller and fainter of the two, requires at least a small telescope to show about a dozen stars in a single field of view. Binoculars will show several bright stars in M7. The cluster is large enough that you should use the lowest power of your telescope to reveal about two dozen stars.

If you don’t have a telescope, you can still find a clean southern horizon and stare with ancient awe and ancient fear at the Scorpion, which so aptly symbolizes the life-affirming and life-denying power of Mother Nature. And then, perhaps, you will remember not to mess with Mom.

Celebration of the Sun

July can be the cruelest month for stargazers. The day is long, but the night is short. Nature itself seems pitted against us. At Perkins Observatory, we see the wisdom of the old expression, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

As a result, in July we suspend our regular Friday-night programs. Instead, we celebrate the one star that you can see easily during the daytime.

Our “Celebration of the Sun” programs begin at 4 p.m. on three Saturdays in July (July 9, 16 and 23). For about two hours, we will talk about the sun and observe it with solar-safe telescopes, weather permitting. We’ll also launch rockets if it isn’t pouring down rain and talk about why they are so important to astronomy. And a program at Perkins wouldn’t be complete without a tour of the “O.”

Tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for children and seniors when you order them in advance. They are $2 more at the door.

Please call 740-363-1257 for more information or to purchase tickets.

Tom Burns


Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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