Rising several hours before sunrise here in the late winter and early spring is the constellation Ophiuchus, the serpent bearer. Ophiuchus is located between the constellations Scorpius and Sagittarius, and is depicted holding two serpents, Serpens Cauda and Serpens Caput, also both constellations. In mythology, Ophiuchus is wrestling with two sea serpents sent to kill him by the gods for warning the Trojans about the Trojan horse.
Ophiuchus lies somewhat right above the direction of the center of the Milky Way, and contains half a dozen globular star clusters or so. For those looking to find globular clusters with telescopes or binoculars, Ophiuchus is a great place to start looking. Also within Ophiuchus is Barnard’s Star, the 4th closest star to our solar system (after the 3 stars of the Alpha Centauri system), and is the closest star visible from the northern hemisphere. Let’s take a look at some of the sights Ophiuchus holds…
If you visualize Ophiuchus as a large bell, the M9 globular cluster lies below and to the left (southwest) of the bottom left star of the bell. M9 is about 5,500 light years from the center of the Milky Way and about 26,000 light years from us. Using a moderate sized telescope, you may be able to see individual stars within this cluster.
Located just below the center of the bell is the M10 globular cluster. Lying a little bit closer to us, it is about 14,000 light years away. This globular cluster is a little bit brighter than M9, and is visible with binoculars, although it only appears as a fuzzy star.
Above and right (northwest) of M10 is another globular cluster, M12. It lies around 16,000 light years away, and is slightly more dim than M10, as well as slightly less dense. This will make it easier to distinguish the two when viewing in a telescope.
Lying beneath the bright upper left star in the bell is the M14 globular cluster. Also visible as a fuzzy star with binoculars, this cluster is around 30,000 light years away. It has an elongated shape for a a globular cluster, and is about 100 light years across.
To the left of the bright upper left star in the bell lies Barnard’s Star, a small red dwarf star that is 6 light years from our solar system. Since it is fairly dim, you’ll need a telescope and a star chart to distinguish it from the background stars. Barnard’s Star has the highest relative motion to our solar system of any star. In fact, if you observe it often enough over long periods of time, you can note the change in it’s position. While not particularly amazing to view other than noting it’s “fast” movement compared to the background, it is still pretty neat to see one of our solar system’s nearest neighbors!
Ophiuchus is a fairly easy constellation to spot and a great target for telescopes and binoculars. With its position in the sky being close to the center of our galaxy, slowly scanning Ophiuchus with telescopes will reveal the myriad of background stars of the Milky Way. So, next time you’re out stargazing, see if you can spot Ophiuchus, one of our nearest neighboring stars, and the globular clusters that it contains!
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