Late spring is a good time for skywatchers in the United States to look for the constellation Centaurus, the mythological half-man, half-horse. His head and shoulders are visible from most of the Lower 48 states. They stand low in the south a couple of hours after sunset, and set in the wee hours of the morning.
But the constellation’s two brightest stars, Alpha and Beta Centauri, are visible only from Hawaii and far South Texas and Florida. Alpha Centauri is to the left, and is the brighter of the two. Skywatchers in the southern hemisphere have a gorgeous view of the entire centaur as it passes high overhead.
One South American culture — the descendants of the Inca — see some of these stars as part of a llama. No one is sure whether this star picture is passed down from the Inca, or was invented more recently. The body of the llama stretches from the Southern Cross — which is too far south to see from the United States at all — to Scorpius, the scorpion. Alpha and Beta Centauri represent the llama’s eyes.
Alpha Centauri actually consists of three separate stars that are bound to each other by their mutual gravitational pull. They’re the closest stars to Earth, at a distance of about four-and-a-third light-years. But they’re still so far away that their light blurs together into a single yellow pinpoint. Only a telescope reveals the true nature of the llama’s sparkling eyes.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2007, 2012
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