Odyssey -- for adventures in science!

"The Scorpion and The Pussycat and How To Find Them!"

by TV’s StarGazer, Jack Horkheimer

At the tail of Scorpius are two stars – Shaula and Lesath – which are known as the Cat’s Eyes in folk legend. Shaula, the brightest as seen from Earth, is about twice the size of our Sun, and 1200 times brighter! Lesath, while appearing fainter from Earth, is actually 12.5 times brighter than Shaula. It appears fainter because it is over five times farther from us. (Shown during evening hours of July and August for mid-Northern latitudes.)

Greetings, greetings, fellow star gazers. You know, when it came to creating star patterns, what we call the constellations, our ancestors had quite vivid imaginations and put all kinds of mythic heroes and heroines in the heavens along with all sorts of animals like sea serpents and dragons, lions and bears, wolves and dogs, eagles and snakes, swans and unicorns, and so on. But how often have you heard anyone mention a cosmic pussy cat? Most likely never. Believe it or not, there really is a pussycat in the cosmos that you can see every summer. And I’m going to show you how to find it, easy as pie.

O.K. We’ve got our skies set up for any night in July and August between sunset and midnight and, if you look over toward the south, you’ll see one of the most famous constellations of summer, Scorpius, the Scorpion, which is one of the few constellations that looks exactly like its name. Even a humongous red star Antares, 700 times wider than our own Sun, marks the spot right where his heart should be. And, with no difficulty at all, you can see how his rather nasty tail curves around up and back on itself like a real scorpion’s, with two stars marking the stinger.

Their Arabic names from left to right are Shaula and Lesath, Shaula being the brightest. And these names actually mean "the sting." In folk legend, however, they are not only the sting, but also the two eyes of an ancient celestial cat. So in addition to marking "the sting," Shaula and Lesath double as "the cat’s eyes." And they stare out at us every single summer, year after year. Now, although to the naked eye they don’t appear to be all that exceptional, if we look deeper into these cat’s eyes with telescopic eyes, we can discover the secrets they have hidden from the eyes of man for thousands of years.

Indeed, Shaula, the brighter one, is almost two times the diameter of our own Sun, almost 2 million miles wide. But, it is a much hotter star than our yellow Sun and burns a fierce blue white. In fact, it is over 12 hundred times more luminous. And because it is 280 light- years away from us, we are seeing Shaula, not as it exists now this summer, but as it looked when its light left it 280 years ago. But our pussycat’s dimmer eye Lesath has kept an even more marvelous secret over the eons. Indeed, the only reason it appears dimmer to us is because it is over five times farther away than Shaula, 1600 light-years beyond. Which means we are seeing it, not as it exists now this summer, but as it existed 1600 years ago. And would you believe it burns an even fiercer blue-white than Shaula and outshines our Sun 15,000 times.

Indeed, Lesath makes both our Sun and Shaula seem small by comparison, for it is two and a half times the diameter of Shaula and seven times as wide as our Sun. Some pussy cat, hey folks? So get yourself outside sometime this summer and find our cosmic pussycat, our kitty in the cosmos – two cat’s eyes peering through the summer night and riding across the heavens on the sting of the scorpion.

Isn’t it fun to Keep Looking Up?


Copyright © 2001 Cobblestone Publishing