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The Snake’s Head

February 23, 2020

The proper names of many stars come from ancient Arabic. And many of those names describe a star’s position in the sky. Denebola, for example, means “the tail of the lion,” Betelgeuse is the armpit of Orion, and Hamal is the head of the ram.

Five stars in a dark region of the sky were all named Minazal, which means “belonging to the uninhabited spot.” At the time they were named, they didn’t belong to any constellation. Each one was assigned a number to keep them apart.

The brightest member of the group is Minazal 5. Today, it’s also called Zeta Hydrae because it’s in the modern constellation Hydra, the water snake.

The star is about 160 light-years away. It’s much bigger, heavier, and brighter than the Sun.

It’s only about one-tenth of the Sun’s age — about 400 million years. Because of its greater mass, though, it’s already passed the end of its “normal” lifetime. It’s burned through the hydrogen in its core, creating helium. Now it’s burning the helium to make carbon and oxygen — a phase of life the Sun won’t enter for billions of years.

The five Minazal stars form the head of the water snake. The group is in the east-southeast as night falls. It’s about half way between the bright stars Regulus, well to its lower left, and Procyon, to the upper right. From a light-polluted city, Minazal 5 may be the only member of the group that’s visible to the unaided eye — the brightest of the five stars in “the uninhabited spot.”


Script by Damond Benningfield

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