Written by Rob Jeffery:
At Londolozi, we’re beginning to see a change of the seasons. The days are getting shorter and cooler as the sun starts to take a lower bow through the sky, not reaching its usual summer time peak at midday.
The mornings are getting chilly and the air is drying out. The greens of the bushveld are being replaced by the yellowing of the drying grass stalks and with dust being swirled up into the atmosphere, the horizons go a near-unnatural hue every morning and evening.
These aren’t the only changes we’re seeing though. The night sky is shifting as well as we head towards winter and is highlighting two very special constellations, namely Scorpius and Orion. What is particularly special about this time of year is that it’s the only time we can see these two constellations in the sky at the same time.
For the southern hemisphere summer months of November to May Orion (The Hunter) hangs prominently overhead in the evenings. Now, as we get to the latter part of May, Orion can be seen resting (quite literally as he can be seen lying on his back on the horizon in the evenings) on the western horizon.
Turn to face the opposite horizon and see Scorpius (the Scorpion) slowly crawling its way up earlier and earlier each evening, eventually to dominate the evening sky as we move into June and further into winter when Orion will no longer be visible.
There is a great Greek myth to explain why these constellations are separated in the night sky. According to the myth, Orion was a great hunter and became quite boastful about his skills, claiming there to be no animal he could not kill. When Orion boasted to the Goddess Artemis, daughter of Zeus, that he would kill every animal on earth, Gaia, the Goddess of the Earth, sent Scorpius to kill Orion.
A great battle ensued which saw the demise of Orion. The contest was however such a lively one that it caught the attention of Zeus, the god of the sky and ruler of all Olympian gods, who then honoured Scorpius by raising it to the heavens. The Goddess Artemis, who was Orion’s admirer, requested that Orion be honored in the same way. Zeus obliged, placing them on opposite ends of the night sky; Scorpio can still be seen today, endlessly chasing Orion across the night sky. This myth serves as a reminder to mortal men to avoid arrogance and boastfulness and to care for all creatures, large and small.
Aside from the mythology, taking a closer look at Scorpius, there are some amazing facts from an astronomical point of view.
At the center of this 17 star constellation sits Antares, the heart of the scorpion, which is one of the largest know stars. Its name is believed to mean “Rival to Ares” (“Rival to Mars”) because of its similar red colour and because it follows the same path across the sky.
This is a truly an enormous star and if placed at the center of our solar system, its surface would extend beyond the orbit of Mars. To try and put numerical value to these proportions is difficult, however to give you some idea the Earth’s circumference is about 24 900 miles while the Sun’s circumference is around 2.7 million miles. The circumference of Antares measures in at a whopping 700 times that of our Sun.
I urge you to take a moment one evening and to scan the eastern sky for a fish hook shape of the Scorpion’s tale rising. It is a magnificent constellation and unlike many star constellations, is one that actually looks like its namesake!