Constellations: Ophiuchus 'the Serpent Bearer' Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Constellations: Ophiuchus 'the Serpent Bearer'

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The Constellation Ophiuchus

Name:Ophiuchus (Greek: 'Serpent Bearer')
Short form:Oph
Area:948 sq deg
Co-ordinates3:Right Ascension 17h, Declination 0°

The name Ophiuchus4 is derived from the Greek for 'man holding snake'. Ophiuchus the constellation most probably depicts Asclepius5, the demigod of healing (see 'Mythology' section).

Ophiuchus is situated between Serpens Caput and Serpens Cauda, two parts of the same constellation, namely Serpens, the serpent (or snake). Serpens Caput represents the head of a large snake, the middle of which is draped around the shoulders of the serpent bearer, Ophiuchus, who divides the snake with his own body. Serpens Cauda is the tail of the snake. The other constellations which share borders with Ophiuchus are: Aquila, Hercules, Libra, Scorpius and Sagittarius. An alternative name for Ophiuchus during the Middle Ages was 'Moses and the Brazen Serpent'.


Ophiuchus is one of the 13 members6 of the zodiac, but isn't regarded as a zodiacal sign by modern astrologers7, who still prefer the old system, which is more than 2,000 years out of date. If the horoscopes were to be redrawn with accurate information, the 'star sign' Ophiuchus would be between Scorpius (Scorpio) and Sagittarius. For the curious, the Sun passes through Ophiuchus between 30 November and 18 December.


It is thought the constellation Ophiuchus honours the demigod Asclepius the healer, who had been trained by Chiron the centaur. Asclepius, a son of Apollo, had learned how to keep death at bay by observing how nature worked, including snake behaviour. The gods could not allow the human race, under the care of Asclepius, to live forever, so Asclepius was struck dead by the great god Jupiter. His image was then placed in the heavens as the constellation Ophiuchus. The Babylonians considered him Marduk (the Sun god) in battle with Tiamat (the Bitter Ocean – Chaos).

The mythological goddess Angitia8 is usually pictured with snakes draped around her shoulders. Angitia was renowned for her knowledge of healing herbs that cured snake bites, and she used to have her own temple and treasury on the shore of Lake Fucinus (which was drained in the 19th Century) of the Abruzzi region, central Italy.


The Hippocratic Oath

Hippocrates of Cos was a member of a guild of physicians known as Asclepiads, whose origins can be traced back to Asclepius. The Hippocratic Oath is a guideline for the medical ethics of doctors, and graduating medical students swear on the oath before they begin practising medicine and treating patients. The staff of Asclepius with two snakes entwined around it is the widely accepted symbol of medicine.

Kepler's Supernova

In the early 17th Century, a star was seen to explode in the Ophiuchus constellation. The German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630) studied this phenomenon, now known as SN 1604, with great fascination. He eventually published his findings in De Stella Nova in Pede Serpentarii which means 'On the New Star in Ophiuchus' Foot'.

At the time of this phenomenon’s discovery in 1604 most people had a geocentric world-view (in which the Earth was at the centre of the universe and every other heavenly body revolved around it). To voice a different theory was considered heresy and many people died for their beliefs. The study of the supernova, which occurred near theta Ophiuchi, added to the weight of evidence which eventually led towards the scientifically accepted heliocentrism9.

First Suspected Extrasolar Planet

There is an interesting history to 70 Ophiuchi, a binary system comprising two orange dwarf stars. Captain WS Jacob of the Chennai Observatory, Tamil Nadu, Bay of Bengal, India, reported in 1855 that he had logged a discrepancy which suggested a 'planetary body in connection with this system'. To place this in historical perspective, back in the UK a young Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were creating their own tartan. Albert was also overseeing the instalment of flushing toilets in Buckingham Palace.

In 1895, US astronomer Thomas Jefferson Jackson See (1866 – 1962) also suspected an unseen companion, and his results were published in the astronomical journal of the day. At the time, See worked at the Lowell Observatory; he was dismissed from his post in 1898.

The Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada debunked both theories in an article written by WD Heintz and published in June 1988. However, Captain WS Jacob's report is historically the first 'suspected extrasolar planet' based on scientific study by a professional astronomer.


The scientific star names are easy to understand (if you know your Greek alphabet). To make star classification simple, they were given Greek letters. For example, 'alpha Ophiuchi' means it is the brightest star in the constellation Ophiuchus. Combined with the genitive name, this is known as the 'Bayer designation'. Some stars have proper names as well, for example, alpha Ophiuchi is Rasalhague. Others are known by their catalogue number. Sometimes the cataloguing is a little off, or the stars are variable. In this case, the second-brightest star (instead of being the 'beta') is the designated eta, followed by zeta, delta, then beta!

Zeta Ophiuchi is a runaway star travelling at 24 km/s. Astronomers think it used to be part of a binary system; when the more massive companion went supernova, zeta was catapulted away.

Rho Ophiuchi is surrounded by a blue reflection nebula, IC 4603, which together with nearby emissions and bright nebulosities over a six-degree span form a stunning vista worthy of any impressionist painter.

Barnard's Star, aka V2500 Ophiuchi, is a red dwarf of 10th magnitude that is just six light years away. The triple star system 36 Ophiuchi is also a close neighbour to us, at 20 light years distance.

51 Ophiuchi is a pre-main-sequence star which has a circumstellar disk.

RS Ophiuchi is a white dwarf and red giant binary star system. The white dwarf last erupted in 2006, and the next time it may explode as a Type 1a supernova. The RS Ophiuchi nova of 1898 was noted by Williamina Fleming.

Star Table

StarDesignationName or
catalogue number
(light years)
Spectral classification
and/or comments
α Ophalpha OphiuchiRasalhague+2.0847White giant
η Opheta OphiuchiSabik+2.4 var84Binary star system
ζ Ophzeta OphiuchiHan+2.5 var458Blue giant
δ Ophdelta OphiuchiYed Prior+2.7170Red giant
β Ophbeta OphiuchiCebalrai+2.7 var82Orange giant
κ Ophkappa OphiuchiHelkath+3.2 var86White giant
ε Ophepsilon OphiuchiYed Posterior+3.2107Yellow giant
θ Ophtheta OphiuchiImad+3.3 var563Blue-white sub-giant
ν Ophnu OphiuchiSinistra+3.3 var153Orange giant
γ Ophgamma OphiuchiAl Durajah+3.795White giant
λ Ophlambda OphiuchiMarfik+3.8166White giant
70 OphiuchiHD 165341unnamed+4.02 var16.6Binary star system
36 OphiuchiHD 155885unnamed+4.320Triple star system
ι Ophiota Ophiuchi25 Ophiuchi+4.4230Blue-white giant
μ Ophmu Ophiuchi57 Ophiuchi+4.5550Blue-white giant
ρ Ophrho Ophiuchi5 Ophiuchi+4.5390Blue-white giant
51 OphiuchiHD 158643unnamed+4.8410Herbig Ae/Be
HIP 87937V2500 OphiuchiBarnard's Star+9.56Red dwarf
RS OphRS OphiuchiHD 162214 Recurrent nova2,000-5,000White dwarf/Red giant

Deep Sky Objects

New General Catalogue (NGC)

The NGC was compiled by John Louis Emil Dreyer (director of the Armagh Observatory from 1882 - 1916).

NGC 6384 is a majestic grand spiral galaxy. It spans 150,000 light years and lies approximately 80 million light years distance.

NGC 6240 is really special: it is butterfly shaped as the result of a collision between two previously separate galaxies. This merger happened so long ago that we are only able to see the aftermath. We have no way of knowing what the original galaxies looked like. A Chandra image of NGC 6240 has enabled astronomers to detect two supermassive black holes from the two distinct nuclei. The black holes are separated by about 3,000 light years, but they are drifting towards each other and will eventually merge. Due to the distance involved, 400 million light years, our snapshot of this binary black hole galaxy is like a postcard from the past. What we see no longer exists in the form that we see it. Maybe all that is there now is one extrasupermassive black hole!

NGC 6633 is a bright open cluster containing about 30 stars, possibly 660 million years of age. It was discovered in 1746 by the Swiss astronomer Philippe Loys de Cheseaux (1718 – 1751).

There are seven Messier objects in Ophiuchus. All of them are globular clusters.

NGC Table

(light years)
NGC 6333M9Globular cluster+8.425,800
NGC 6254M10Globular cluster+6.414,300
NGC 6218M12Globular cluster+7.716,300
NGC 6402M14Globular cluster+8.330,300
NGC 6273M19Globular cluster+7.528,000
NGC 6266M62Globular cluster+7.422,500
NGC 6171M107Globular cluster+8.821,000
NGC 6240NGC 6240Post-merger galaxy+12.8 var400 million
NGC 6633De Cheseaux No 3Open star cluster+4.61,040
NGC 6384NGC 6384Spiral galaxy+11.280 million


M2-9, also known as 'Minkowski's Butterfly', and 'Wings of a Butterfly Nebula', is a planetary nebula which was discovered in 1947 by German-American astronomer Rudolph Minkowski (1895 - 1976). The Hubble image taken in 1997 shows the nebula in remarkable detail. What we are witnessing is the spectacularly beautiful death of a binary star system; this is why there are twin jets, if it was just one star the nebula would be circular.

Meteor Showers

The space debris which creates a meteor shower comes from the tail of a comet as the Earth crosses where the comet passed previously on its own orbit. Imagine a trail of breadcrumbs or sawdust like that is used in hashing.

The meteor shower connected with this constellation is called the Ophiuchids. It was first reported by WF Denning in 1887. Since then, these showers have been reported annually, occurring between 13 May and 4 July. Although the ZHR (Zenithal Hourly Rate) is very low, the display produces a number of bright meteors and fireballs.

Extrasolar Planets in Ophiuchus

More than 2,000 years ago, the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Epicurus argued about whether there were other Earth-like planets orbiting distant suns. Several extrasolar planetary systems have been found in the constellation Ophiuchus, the first was discovered in 2005. The figures in the table below are the length of the planet's orbital period around its parent star, which we know of as a year. The mass of the extrasolar planet is compared with that of Jupiter, our solar system's largest planet, known to astronomers as the 'Jovian scale'.

The star HD 156846 comprises a binary system: a yellow star similar to our Sun, HD 156846 A, and a companion, a red dwarf, HD 156846 B.

HD 156846 A has a planet, HD 156846 b, which is ten times the mass of Jupiter. HD 156846 b orbits its star in the habitable zone, but the orbit is highly eccentric, possibly due to gravitational interference from the red dwarf companion. The planet is a gas giant and not a candidate for the search for extra-terrestrial life. However, any rocky moons with enough gravity to retain an atmosphere would be a possibility.

A super-Earth planet (that's a terrestrial world like the Earth) has been discovered orbiting a red dwarf star called GJ 1214, which lies just 40 light years distant. The planet GJ 1214 b has six times the mass of Earth and it is just over two-and-a-half times Earth radii. Although it orbits its star very closely, at 0.014 Astronomical Units (once every 38 hours at a distance of only two million km), it has an atmosphere about 200km thick, so there may be liquid water beneath the surface.

Extrasolar Planets Table

Star name or
catalogue number
catalogue number
Planet mass
(Jovian scale)
Orbital period
(Earth days)
Year of discoveryComments
HD 149143HD 149143 b1.3342005Hot gas giant
HD 170469HD 170469 b0.671,1432007Eccentric subjovian
HD 171028HD 171028 b1.85382007Eccentric gas giant
HD 156846HD 156846 b10.53602007Superjovian, high eccentric orbit, habitable zone
GJ 1214GJ 1214 b6×Earth1.582009Hot super-Earth
CoRoT-6CoRoT-6 b2.968.882009Hot gas giant
HD 148427HD 148427 b0.96331.52009Gas giant
11 Oph11 Oph b21730,0002007Gas giant or Brown Dwarf
HD 154088HD 154088 b0.210962011Neptunian-sized world
HD 150433HD 150433 b6×Earth18.62011Hot super-Earth
HD 157172HD 157172 b0.11052011Sub-Neptunian
HD 164509HD 164509 b0.482822011Gas giant/habitable zone
HD 152581HD 152581 b1.56892011Gas giant
HD 159243HD 159243 b1.112.62013Hot gas giant
HD 159243HD 159243 c1.92482013Gas giant
CoRoT-25CoRoT-25 b0.274.862013Hot gas giant
CoRoT-26CoRoT-26 b0.54.22013Hot gas giant
ROXs 42BROX 42B b951,0002013Superjovian
CoRoT-29CoRoT-29 b0.82.852015Hot gas giant
HD 155233HD 155233 b28852015Gas giant
HAT-P-57 AHAT-P-57 A b1.852.472015Hot gas giant


Ophelia is possibly the female derivative of Ophiuchus. As a Shakespearean character she has almost legendary status. The image of the manner of the daughter of Polonius' death in Hamlet has been recreated many times in different art forms since Shakespeare's day.

Snake Charmers

The image of a beautiful woman draping a large snake around her body is quite evocative, and guaranteed to draw attention. Elizabeth Hurley is one sassy actress who harnessed the power of shock-tactic publicity to promote her 2000 film Bedazzled. It ensured box-office success for an inferior remake worthy of a Golden Raspberry Award.

Some snakes are harmless10, but the fear of snakes is quite a common phobia. Ophiophobia (or Ophidiophobia) is the name given to this fear. Some people who have no contact with snakes in their daily life are frightened of them, which is known as 'irrational fear'. Others fear the snake's ability to inflict harm or kill in their home environment. A true ophiophobic would dread even the image of a snake in a book or on a TV screen.

Health Warning

Care should be taken when handling snakes, especially the poisonous type. The Rev George Went 'Little George' Hensley started a religious doctrine for snake-handling in 1910, basing his stance on something he interpreted from the Gospel according to Mark: They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. In case you are wondering what happened to him, he died in 1955 after a snake bit him, but still his followers continue the trend.

1Also known as V2500 Ophiuchi and Proxima Ophiuchi.2A light year is the distance light travels in one year, roughly 5.88 trillion miles or 9.46 trillion km.3Current IAU guidelines use a plus sign (+) for northern constellations and a minus sign (−) for southern ones.4Pronounced oh-fee-U-cuss.5Some various other spellings include Aesculapius and Asklepios.6This is a good question for pub quiz setters, and knowing that Ophiuchus is the extra 'sign' would probably earn you a QI bonus.7Possibly because some people are triskaidekaphobic.8Probably from the Latin word anguis, meaning 'snake' or 'serpent'.9Meaning that the Sun (Helios) is at the centre.10But not all. You would need to be careful when visiting Australia.

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