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Under the Martinborough Stars

September 23, 2019 Regular Features, September 2019 No Comments

‘Ophiuchus’ from “The Box of Stars” by Catherine Tennant.

By Becky Bateman

I took a stargazing group recently at Peppers Parehua; it was a stunningly dark night with no moon. “What’s your Star Sign Becky?” was one of the very first questions I got asked when I Introduced myself as their star gazing guide for the night. 

This isn’t the first time.  Normally I get asked about aliens, but most common of all, why Pluto isn’t a planet anymore. It’s been 13 years since Pluto was reclassified as a Dwarf Planet but there is a lot of love for that little ball of ice.

‘Star Signs’ form a belt of 12 constellations around the Earth; you always see at least 6 of these constellations along the ecliptic on any given night. The ecliptic is the path of the Sun, which makes these signs even more important. Historically, these 12 signs can be used as a time piece so depending on where particular signs were, you knew the time of year.

Virgo, the maiden holding an ear of wheat in her hand, rises in the East in Autumn, reminding us to collect in the harvest. Scorpius sets in the West in mid Spring, its tail vertical in the sky from the horizon. Māori know this sign as Te Matau a Maui, and it ‘pulls’ the Milky Way/ the great Waka down towards the horizon ready for Summer or voyaging weather.

But there is a growing movement that instead of 12 zodiacal signs, there is actually 13. This 13th sign is thought to represent people born November 29th to December 18th and is called Ophiuchus.

Unfortunately, Ophiuchus is a Zodiac constellation, not a Zodiac sign. Zodiac signs are all 30 degrees wide so that there are no gaps between them in the 360 degree circle around the Earth, even though some of the actual constellations are smaller or larger than this. A Zodiac sign, is the 30 degree space that is represented, rather than the constellation itself. 

Ophiuchus is a most difficult name to say, it’s pronounced “oh-FEW-kuss” and it nestles between Scorpius and Sagittarius which are both up in our evening sky. Ophiuchus is thought to be named after a real person, rather unusual for a constellation as many are named after made up characters and mythical creatures from various myths and legends. 

Ophiuchus could be named after an Egyptian called Imhotep, the hero Apollo, a priest of Poseidon, or even a Babylonian serpent god. With most constellations, they all hold many different stories and versions around the world which makes their history so fascinating to investigate. 

It is a large constellation, usually depicted as a man holding a snake and contains the nearby star ‘Barnards Star’, the third closest star to our Solar System, only 6 light years away. 

And yes, if you must know, I’m a Sagittarian, or am I an Ophiuchan? 

Becky Bateman runs Under The Stars, a nomadic astronomy tour guide service in the Wairarapa

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