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Stars with cool names: Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali

The planet Saturn shines in front of the constellation Libra in 2014, outshining Libra's two brightest stars, Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali. Libra? Here's your constellation

Tonight for July 26, 2014

On July and August evenings, try finding two stars in the constellation Libra with the coolest of all star names: 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. In 2014, you’ll see the golden planet Saturn shining in between these two Libra stars, and the red planet Mars coupling up with Spica. About one month from now – on August 27 – Mars will meet up with Saturn in the constellation Libra.

We zoom out to include the stars Antares and Spica, plus the planet Mars. In any year, you can find the constellation Libra between the stars Antares and Spica.

We zoom out to include the stars Antares and Spica, plus the planet Mars. In any year, you can find the constellation Libra between the stars Antares and Spica.

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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No matter where you live, from any location around the world, the stars Antares and Spica can help guide you to Libra’s two brightest stars. In 2014, the ringed planet Saturn shines north of the ecliptic, and in between the Libra stars Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali. By the way, you can distinguish ruddy Antares, golden Saturn, the red planet Mars and blue-white Spica by color. If you can’t discern color with the eye alone, try looking at these colorful gems with binoculars. Or better yet, view Saturn’s gorgeous rings with a telescope.

In any year, look for Zubenelgenubi midway between Antares and Spica. Meanwhile, 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. In some cultures, though, these stars’ location on and near the ecliptic has given them a special fame. That is, they’ve been seen as a celestial Gateway, because the sun, moon and planets all at times move between them.

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. In 2013, you’ll also see the planet Saturn shining in between the Libra stars and Spica.

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