Jimmy Westlake: The Centaur peeks in
Centaurs figured heavily in the mythology of the ancient Greeks — so much so that two of them are immortalized in the stars as our constellations of Sagittarius the Archer and Centaurus the Centaur. The legend of these half-man, half-horse beasts might have originated when someone long ago first saw humans on horseback and imagined them to be some sort of human-equine hybrid.
Centaurus is one of our most ancient constellations, first mentioned in Greek literature dating from the fourth century B.C. It is thought to represent the mythological centaur named Chiron.
While most of the centaurs were considered to be barbaric, uncouth beasts, Chiron was an exception. He was a wise, old centaur that served as the personal tutor of many Greek heroes, like Hercules, Theseus and Jason.
During one of Hercules’ many rowdy scuffles, Chiron was accidentally nicked by one of Hercules’ poisoned arrows. Being immortal, Chiron could not die, but the agony of his wound was so severe, that he begged Zeus to revoke his immortality.
Zeus took pity on Chiron, and he was allowed to die. Zeus then immortalized the image of Chiron among the stars as our constellation of Centaurus.
Twenty-five hundred years ago, the constellation of Centaurus could be seen in its entirety from mid-northern latitudes, but the slow wobbling of the Earth on its axis has carried the stars of the Centaur so far south that we can only see his human half from Colorado. Every spring, he briefly pops his head up above our southern mountains and peeks in on us.
You too can see Centaurus peeking in on us. Go outside around 10 p.m. in late May and look due south, underneath the bright blue star Spica. There you’ll spot the Centaur’s triangular head, his arms and human torso, but his equine body remains hidden from view. To see the complete outline of Centaurus, you would have to travel south to the latitude of Key West or Hawaii.
One of the front hooves of the Centaur, which remains below our Colorado horizon, is the closest star system to our own, a beautiful triple star called Alpha Centauri. At a distance of only 4.3 light years, Alpha Centauri is the third brightest star in Earth’s sky.
Tucked in under the belly of the Centaur is the smallest and yet one of the best known of our constellations, Crux, the Southern Cross. The ancient Greeks considered these stars to be the hind hooves of the Centaur, but European navigators of the late 16th century first imagined a crucifix in these stars and the tradition stuck.
One of the many celestial treasures found within the boundaries of Centaurus is the largest and most beautiful of the globular star clusters, Omega Centauri. There are at least 200 globular star clusters buzzing around the Milky Way like bees around a hive, and Omega Centauri is like the queen bee. As large as the full moon and containing millions of stars, Omega Centauri is visible to the unaided eye as a fuzzy ball and, when viewed through a telescope, is nothing short of breathtaking.
To see this cosmic wonder from Colorado, you must have a clear view all the way down to the southern horizon, because Omega only manages to rise a few degrees high into our sky. Try climbing a hill or mountain with a clear view to the south and aim your binoculars at Omega. You won’t be disappointed.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his “Cosmic Moment” radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out Jimmy’s astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.
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