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Finding the Celestial Serpent-Bearer

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Week of May 31 — June 6, 2015

Anyone who has ever searched online or flipped through a phone book to find the name of a physician has surely seen the symbol: Two serpents wrapped around a vertical staff that appears topped by a round knob and is flanked by wings. It's known as the "caduceus" and since 1902, when the U.S. Army adopted it as the insignia of its Medical Corps, it has been the familiar emblem of the American medical profession.

Many medical associations — including the World Health Organization — use what some consider to be the "correct" and traditional symbol of medicine: the staff of Asclepius, with a single serpent encircling a staff. Either way, people have long associated the serpent with medicine.

So what does this have to do with stargazing? Well, the ancient constellation of Serpens, the serpent, has long been recognized as a celestial symbol of healing, and appears in our early evening sky this week.

Not long after dark during early June we can find this figure midway up in the southeastern sky, held by the serpent-bearer Ophiuchus. Granted it takes quite an imagination to find these groupings, but once you do, you'll know them forever.

Ophiuchus is believed to represent Aesculapius, the ancient god of health and healing, and its brightest star is named Rasalhague, which, appropriately, is Arabic for "Head of the Snake Charmer." And Serpens — the only two-part constellation in the heavens with its head on one side (Serpens Caput) and its tail on the other (Serpens Cauda) — is draped across the front of his body.

Ophiuchus lies along some of the thickest star clouds of the Milky Way. If you have a sky that's unpolluted by lights from a large city — or can drive to a rural and dark site — you'll have no trouble finding the hazy band of the Milky Way passing through this constellation. And just below you'll find the brilliant reddish-orange star Antares, the brightest in Scorpius, the scorpion. And, this year, even the ringed planet Saturn appears nearby.

Scan your eyes among the stars in this celestial region and you'll be sure to spot many "faint fuzzies" (as amateur astronomers affectionately call deep sky objects). These are more than just curious hazy patches; in fact, if you aim binoculars or a small telescope in their directions you'll discover that many of these are star clusters — clumps of dozens, hundreds or even thousands of stars held in place by gravitation. Later next week will be a great time to search this neighborhood since the moon's light won't obliterate our view of the fainter stars.

Interestingly, the sun passes in front the stars of Ophiuchus as it journeys around our sky each year, yet this constellation isn't one of the official signs of the zodiac. If you think this is some kind of cosmic fluke, keep in mind that the sun actually spends three times as many days in front of the stars of Ophiuchus — from Nov. 29 through Dec. 17 — as it does in front of Scorpius — Nov. 23-28 — so I would think it would form one of the 13 signs in the horoscope tables.

So why doesn't it? Good question!

Visit Dennis Mammana at www.dennismammana.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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