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After dinner in late spring is a perfect time to go for a stroll on the beach. Look south and check out the centaur carrying a wild animal to the altar.
On the centaur’s back is a large cluster of stars that may be part of a galactic collision. We just miss seeing the closest visible star to our sun. It is the hoof of the centaur; however, it is right under the horizon. A road trip to Florida will give a stargazer the chance to see this star.
The name of the constellation that represents a wolf is Lupus. The wolf identification for this constellation is from the middle ages. The centaur constellation is Centaurus; do not confuse this group with Sagittarius. In ancient times, these two groups were thought to be one large constellation. The wolf was a wild animal, not a wolf. The centaur had a shaft pierced through it and was carrying it to the altar for a sacrifice. The altar is a constellation to the east of the wolf.
In middle ages, astronomers changed the wild animal into a wolf and the two constellations were separated; therefore, they are now two different constellations. Nowadays it looks as if the centaur has hit the wolf with the shaft and sent him flying back into the altar. This time of year, there are some excellent telescope objects in this part of the sky.
One of these objects may be an ancient collision. In the middle of the centaur constellation, which would be his back, a star looks to be fuzzy as if it were out of focus. With a small back yard telescope, a stargazer reveals a fuzzy ball the size of the full moon. A medium size telescope reveals a large globular cluster. These clusters are a large sphere of many stars. This one is called Omega Centauri and is the brightest in the sky. There are more than a million suns all revolving around a central point of gravity. The stars are of varying ages, unlike most that have stars of the same age. This hints to the fact that it may be a small dwarf galaxy, which collided with the Milky Way.
Our sun’s closest neighbors are in Centaurus. The closest visible star to our sun is Alpha Centauri, also known as Rigil Kentaurus. This star marks the hoof of Centaurus. Unfortunately, for us it is just below the horizon. For a view just above the horizon, you have to drive south to Daytona Beach, Fla. Drive a little further south to Miami and it will be high enough to see it easily in the sky. With a telescope, a viewer can see two stars, making a nice double star system. But wait...there is more, a relatively close star called Proxima Centauri belongs to the group making a triple play for summer stargazers.
The story of Alpha Centauri does not stop with first-rate astronomy facts. Remember back in the sixty’s when the Robinson family left Earth for a nearby star to establish a Human colony? Alpha Centauri was the star they were headed for when they first blasted off Earth. There was a remake in 1998, just in case someone thought I forgot about it.
The three groups, the wolf, the centaur, and the altar are all fun groups to look for, especially since you have to go to the beach to see them. For help viewing these groups, get the map on the website at www.ingramplanetarium.org. Afterwards, go out, view the heavens, and let your imagination do the work to see the constellations.