According to mythology, the night sky would be a lot less interesting if not for the exploits of Hercules. The sky is filled with creatures and people who were killed by the strongman, then placed in the sky by the gods or by Hercules himself. The list includes Leo, the lion; Cancer, the crab; and Hydra, the water snake.
Another of his victims was Chiron, a half-man, half-horse known as a centaur. Legend says that Chiron was a brainy fellow who tutored many of the gods. He was slain when he was accidentally hit by one of Hercules's poison arrows. In tribute, the gods placed him in the sky, where he forms the constellation Centaurus.
From the United States, late spring is the best time to view the centaur. He trots very low across the south during the evening and early morning hours.
Unfortunately, he's so far south that for most of the U.S., a big part of the constellation remains below the horizon.
But all of us can see the centaur's head and shoulders, which include several fairly bright stars. That region of the constellation also includes the biggest, brightest star cluster in the night sky. Known as Omega Centauri, it contains a million or more stars. To the eye alone it looks like a slightly fuzzy star, but binoculars reveal many of its individual stars.
What most of us can't see is the centaur's most famous feature: our closest stellar neighbors, the three-star system of Alpha Centauri. More about that tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2008
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