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Astro Bob: Meet Scorpius, Minnesota's only indigenous scorpion

Get acquainted with the arachnid that did in Orion.

Scorpius early July.jpg
A tall constellation, Scorpius the scorpion crawls across the southern sky as soon as it gets dark. Its brightest star, Antares, glows with a distinctive orange-red hue. Shaula, at the tip of its tail, represents the stinger and is often called "The Stinger Star."
Contributed / Stellarium
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Scorpius form
In this mythological depiction Scorpius looks very realistic!
Contributed / Urania's Mirror, Sidney Hall

DULUTH — Here in Minnesota there are no indigenous scorpions, but you don't have to look far to find them. Several species reside in neighboring states North and South Dakota. Our only scorpion-of-a-sort is a harmless celestial lookalike called Scorpius. Like the living version it's largely nocturnal. Every clear July night, you'll find it crawling slowly across the bottom half of the southern sky.

Scorpius is a very ancient constellation. Before adoption by the Greeks and Romans, the Sumerians pictured GIR-TAB the scorpion here more than 5,000 years ago. With a curving tail poised to sting it's one of the few star groups that looks like the real animal. Some people call it "Scorpio," but the proper astronomical name is Scorpius. The term Scorpio is now used only in astrological circles.

Scorpius Orion
Every May, as Scorpius rises in the east, Orion runs for cover at the western horizon.
Contributed / Stellarium

In the Greek myth, Scorpius was sent to sting and kill Orion for either his personal indiscretions or bragging that he could kill any animal on Earth he wished. After a pitched battle, the scorpion administered its fatal sting to the boastful hunter. In an interesting twist, the two constellations lie in opposite parts of the sky. As the vanquished Orion sets in the west in spring, Scorpius the victor rises in the east.

Scorpius head
This is what many of us see when we face south at nightfall in early July — bright Antares and the head of the scorpion. To see the full outline find a location with an open southern view.
Contributed / Bob King

I'm guessing that like me you probably only see the top half of the constellation from your home or apartment. For observers in mid-northern latitudes the tail and stinger drag along the bottom of the southern sky near the horizon. The farther south you live the higher Scorpius climbs and the easier it is to see the entire figure. Looking straight south at eye level, the constellation's brightest star Antares stares me right in the face. Above and to its right are three stars in a slanted, near-vertical line that recalls Orion's Belt and outlines the scorpion's head.

From a location with an unobstructed view to the south you'll see most or all of the tail which terminates at Shaula, the Stinger Star. Antares is your touchstone star — find it and you can connect-the-dots to see the entire constellation.

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VLTI view of Antares
Using the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope Interferometer, astronomers have constructed this image of the red supergiant star Antares. This is the most detailed image ever of this object, or any other star apart from the sun.
ESO, K. Ohnaka

Like better known Betelgeuse in Orion, Antares is a massive red supergiant star that will likely blow itself to smithereens in a supernova explosion once its nuclear fuel supply is exhausted. One of the largest stars visible with the naked eye, it's 700 times the diameter of the sun. If put in its place, the supergiant would engulf all the inner planets out to and beyond Mars.

Scorpius and fireflies
I took this photo of Scorpius from 15 miles north of Duluth on June 30. City light pollution creates the dome-like glow to the right. Fireflies flash in the foreground. The positions of the star clusters are shown so you can find them in your binoculars.
Contributed / Bob King

There are several fine binoculars sights within the scorpion's lair including the globular cluster M4, located just 1.3° to the lower right (southwest) of Antares. It looks like a fuzzy star, but a telescope will chop it up into hundreds of pinpoint suns.

M4 globular
At 7,200 light-years distance, M4 is the closest globular star cluster. It's about 75 light-years across and readily visible in binoculars under a moderately dark sky. It contains some 100,000 stars.
Contributed / John Chumack

Two additional open (looser) clusters — M6 and M7 — float about 5° above and left of the tail. These groups are brighter and more spread out, so you'll be able to discern individual stars or at least a general "twinkliness" in both. They are two of the finest binocular objects in the summer sky.

So go ahead. Feel free to explore this storied arachnid the next clear night. You have nothing to fear.

Read more from Astro Bob
A pair of solar blasts are expected to punch up bright auroras across the much of the upper U.S. and Canada Wednesday night.

Related Topics: SCIENCE AND NATURE
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer and retired photographer for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at nightsky55@gmail.com.
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