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Stars with cool names

On July evenings, try finding two stars in the constellation Libra with the coolest of all star names: Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali. In any year, they’re located in between two of the sky’s brightest stars, Antares in the constellation Scorpius and Spica in the constellation Virgo.

Seek for the star Spica to the west of Mars and the constellation Libra. Then look to the east of  Mars for the planet Saturn and the star Antares.

Seek for the star Spica to the west of Mars and the constellation Libra. Then look to the east of Mars for the planet Saturn and the star Antares.

For the rest of July 2016, however, you’ll see the red planet Mars shining in front of the constellation Libra. The waxing crescent moon shouldn’t too greatly disrupt the view of these two Libra stars tonight, on July 10. But by the time that the moon reaches the constellation Libra on the nights of July 13 and 14, it may be difficult to see Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali in the glare of the bright waxing gibbous moon. So use Mars to help guide you to these modesty-bright stars tonight – and after the moon leaves the evening sky during the final week of July.

Click into this post to hear a pronunciation of Zubenelgenubi

Click into this post to hear a pronunciation of Zubeneschamali

If you live at mid-northern latitudes – North America, Europe or Asia – you’ll see these Libra stars rather low in your south to southwestern sky at nightfall and early evening. As seen from middle latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere – for example, in Australia – Libra’s stars shine close to overhead as darkness falls at this time of year.

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In any year, look for Zubenelgenubi midway between Antares and Spica. Zubeneschamali lies about one fist-width from Zubenelgenubi. Hold your fist an arm length away.

The path of the sun through the zodiac.

The path of the sun through the Zodiac via Wikimedia Commons.

Antares, Zubenelgenubi and Spica are stars of the Zodiac, or legendary Pathway of Animals that resides in our sky. This band around our sky marks the sun’s annual pathway in front of the backdrop stars. Nowadays, astronomers are more likely to speak of the ecliptic, which is more or less the same thing; the ecliptic is defined differently, as the plane of Earth’s orbit around the sun. Zodiac and ecliptic both mean a band around the sky, in front of which the sun travels throughout the year. If you could see stars during the daytime, you’d see the stars of the Zodiac. The sun sweeps near these stars, pairing up with Spica in middle October, Zubenelgenubi on or near November 7 and Antares on or near December 1.

Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali were once seen in western culture as being part of the constellation Scorpius the Scorpion. They represented the Scorpion’s Claws. Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali have been seen as a celestial Gateway in some cultures, because the moon and planets travel in between these Libra stars whenever they north of the ecliptic. Note that Saturn is north of the ecliptic, and in 2015, so is the moon when it makes its monthly rounds through the constellation Libra the Scales.

Bottom line: Look for two stars in the constellation Libra the Scales: Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali. They’re located in between two of the sky’s brightest stars, Antares in the constellation Scorpius and Spica in the constellation Virgo.

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Bruce McClure

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