Centaurus

StarDate: April 13, 2009

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A pair of centaurs -- the half-men, half-horses of Greek mythology -- grace the night sky. One is Sagittarius, the archer. The other is simply Centaurus -- the centaur -- and it's visible in the evening sky this month.

Centaurus is a southern constellation. His human parts -- the head and shoulders -- are visible from much of the United States. They rise in early to mid evening, and remain in view for a few hours low in the south. But the centaur's body and legs are visible only from far-southern latitudes.

That's too bad, because the most interesting stars in the constellation are the ones farthest south.

The brightest star in Centaurus is Rigel Kentaurus -- "foot of the centaur." It's better known as Alpha Centauri -- the star system that's closest to the Sun.

Alpha Centauri consists of three stars. One is almost identical to the Sun. Another is a bit cooler and less massive than the Sun. The third star is a red dwarf -- a small, cool, faint star. Because it's closer to us than the other two, it's known as Proxima Centauri. All three stars are about four light-years from Earth.

The constellation's second-brightest star is Agena -- "knee of the centaur." It's to the west of Alpha Centauri. The two stars make an impressive sight.

You can see both of these stars if you live near the southern tips of Florida or Texas, or in Hawaii. Both stars are very low above the southern horizon in mid to late evening.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2004, 2009

For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.

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