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Wednesday, December 19 , 2018, 4:17 am | Fair 43º


Dennis Mammana: ‘Linking’ Star of Taurus Brings Best of 2 Constellations

View the linking star of Taurus after dark this week. Click to view larger
View the linking star of Taurus after dark this week. (Creators.com illustration)

Constellations are like states.

Just as the continental United States is divided into 48 such states — some large and some small — the heavens are also divided into 88 constellations. And just as every city in the United States (except for the District of Columbia) is part of a unique state, every star is also part of a unique constellation.

Well, almost.

In the current evening sky, there’s one star that officially belongs to two separate constellations — a “linking” star, we call it — and you can see it if you gaze very high in the southern sky just after dark.

You’ll have little trouble spotting the brightest star in this celestial region. Capella sparkles like a jewel and marks the northwesternmost vertex of a near- pentagon shape of fairly bright stars that outlines Auriga.

Through the ages, Capella has played a major role in mythological writings and was described in Assyrian tablets as far back as 1730 B.C. The ancient Greeks often depicted Auriga as a charioteer with a whip in one hand, and a goat and her kids in the other. Sky watchers of ancient China imagined its stars to represent the Five Chariots.

To the south of Auriga, stargazers with a vivid imagination might be able to trace the stars of Taurus to outline the form of a bull’s head and its long pointed horns. Look for the bright reddish-orange star Aldebaran that represents the “fiery red eye” of the bull, staring angrily at Orion. Surrounding it you’ll notice a V-shaped grouping of stars called the Hyades.

In the lore of the ancients — from Greece to China — the Hyades itself had always been associated with wet and stormy weather; in fact, its very name is said to come from an archaic Greek word meaning “to rain.”

And riding on the back of the bull we can find the shimmering star cluster known as the Pleiades, or, more commonly, the “Seven Sisters.” On a moonless night, look carefully at the Pleiades to see how many stars you can count. Most stargazers can find six, while some sharp-eyed observers claim to have seen as many as 16!

Interestingly, the star between Auriga and Taurus — known as Elnath — is one of only two stars that are shared with a neighboring constellation (the other is Alpheratz, sharing Pegasus and Andromeda).

Ancient Arabian astronomers saw this star as part of Auriga, the charioteer; they called it the “Heel of the Rein Holder” but later officially assigned it to the tip of the bull’s long northernmost horn. In this new position, Elnath derived its name from the Arabic Al Natih, which means “the butting one.”

Elnath is the second brightest star in both Taurus and Auriga, and the 25th brightest star in the heavens. It is located near the anti-center of the Milky Way galaxy — the point directly opposite the galactic center, which lies in Sagittarius. At a distance of some 130 light-years, this star is nearly five times larger and almost 700 times more luminous than our sun.

Bundle up this week, and head outdoors to check out one of only two linking stars in the sky!

Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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