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The 'Linking' Star of Taurus

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Week of Jan. 25-31, 2015

Constellations are like states.

Just as the continental U.S. 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 U.S. (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 evening sky, during late January, there's one star that officially belongs to two separate constellations — a "linking" star, we call it. You can see its two star groupings if you go outdoors this week and look very high in the southeastern sky just after dark; their names are Auriga, the charioteer, and Taurus, the bull.

You'll have little trouble spotting the brightest star in this celestial region. Capella sparkles like a jewel and marks the northwestern-most vertex of a nearly-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 1,730 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.

Surrounding it you'll notice a V-shaped grouping of stars known as 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 dark 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 El Nath — is one of only two stars that are shared with a neighboring constellation. Ancient Arabian astronomers once saw this star as part of Auriga, the charioteer, and 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, El Nath derived its name from the Arabic Al Natih, which means, in English, "the butting one."

El Nath is the 25th brightest star in the heavens and is located close to the anticenter 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 get outdoors to check out one of only two "linking' stars in the sky!

Visit Dennis Mammana at www.dennismammana.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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