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Centaurus, a prominent southern hemisphere constellation, is one of the largest and most recognizable constellations in the night sky. Named after the centaur Chiron from Greek mythology, Centaurus features the bright Alpha Centauri system, one of the closest star systems to Earth.

astronomy constellation IAU

1. Introduction

Centaurus is a prominent constellation in the southern celestial hemisphere, known for its distinctive shape and rich astronomical significance. Named after the mythological centaur Chiron, this constellation is one of the largest in the night sky, spanning a vast area of space and containing several notable celestial objects.

Centaurus is characterized by its distinctive shape, which resembles a centaur holding a spear or bow. The constellation is bordered by several other prominent constellations, including Crux (the Southern Cross), Hydra, and Lupus. Centaurus is home to several bright stars, including Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to Earth, and Beta Centauri, also known as Hadar. Centaurus is located in the third quadrant of the southern celestial hemisphere (SQ3) and can be observed from latitudes between +25° and -90°. Its right ascension ranges from approximately 11h 30m to 15h 25m, and its declination from approximately -25° to -60° (Figure 1). These celestial coordinates place Centaurus in a prime position for observation from the southern hemisphere and parts of the northern hemisphere near the equator.

Figure 1. IAU chart of Centaurus. Source: Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope. Reproduced under CC BY 4.0 license.

Centaurus holds a prominent place in astronomical history and mythology, with its bright stars and distinctive shape making it a focal point for astronomers and stargazers throughout the ages. Its proximity to Earth and its diverse array of celestial objects, including stars, star clusters, and galaxies, make it a captivating constellation for exploration and study. 

2. Historical Background and Mythology

In ancient Greek mythology, Centaurus is closely associated with the figure of Chiron, a wise and revered centaur known for his extraordinary wisdom, skill in medicine, and teachings in various arts and sciences. Chiron's story is one of resilience, mentorship, and ultimately, transformation. Chiron's origins trace back to the union of the Titan Cronus and the ocean nymph Philyra. However, Philyra, horrified by her son's half-human, half-horse form, begged the gods to transform her into a tree to escape her maternal duties. Despite this unusual beginning, Chiron was raised by the god Apollo and the goddess Artemis, who recognized his potential and imparted their knowledge upon him. Chiron quickly distinguished himself as a renowned healer, musician, and scholar, earning the respect of both gods and mortals alike. He became known for his teachings in medicine, philosophy, music, and astrology, gathering around him a group of disciples that included many of the greatest heroes of Greek mythology.

One of Chiron's most famous students was Achilles, the hero of the Trojan War. Chiron taught Achilles the art of warfare, as well as the principles of honor, courage, and justice. Another notable pupil was Hercules, who sought Chiron's guidance in mastering the skills necessary for his legendary twelve labors. Chiron's wisdom and compassion were legendary, and he was revered as a mentor and counselor by many. However, despite his benevolent nature, Chiron's life was not without tragedy. In one version of the myth, Chiron was accidentally wounded by a poisoned arrow shot by Hercules during a battle with a group of centaurs. As a divine immortal, Chiron could not die, but he endured excruciating pain from the incurable wound. In his agony, Chiron willingly sacrificed his immortality to end his suffering, trading places with Prometheus, the Titan who had been condemned to eternal torment for stealing fire from the gods. As a result, Chiron was transformed into a constellation and placed among the stars, where he would be honored for eternity as the wise and benevolent centaur.

Centaurus, the constellation named after Chiron, is depicted in the night sky as a centaur holding a spear or bow, with its front legs formed by the stars Alpha and Beta Centauri. This celestial representation serves as a reminder of Chiron's enduring legacy as a teacher, healer, and wise counselor, whose influence continues to inspire seekers of knowledge and wisdom throughout the ages.

3. Notable Stars

Alpha Centauri (Rigil Kentaurus): Alpha Centauri is the brightest star in the constellation and the closest star system to Earth, located approximately 4.37 light-years away. It is actually a triple star system composed of three stars: Alpha Centauri A, Alpha Centauri B, and Proxima Centauri. Alpha Centauri A and B form a binary pair, while Proxima Centauri, also known as Alpha Centauri C, orbits the binary pair at a much greater distance. Alpha Centauri A and B are similar to our Sun in size and spectral type, making them prime candidates for studies of stellar evolution and exoplanet detection. Alpha Centauri A is the larger and more massive of the two primary stars, with a spectral classification of G2V, similar to our Sun. It has a slightly higher luminosity and surface temperature than the Sun, making it a main-sequence star in the prime of its life. Alpha Centauri A is estimated to be about 1.1 times the mass of the Sun and approximately 1.519 times its diameter. Alpha Centauri B is the slightly smaller and cooler companion to Alpha Centauri A, with a spectral classification of K1V. It is also a main-sequence star, though it is less massive and luminous than Alpha Centauri A. Alpha Centauri B is estimated to be about 0.907 times the mass of the Sun and approximately 0.863 times its diameter. Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf star of spectral type M5.5V, making it significantly smaller, cooler, and less luminous than both Alpha Centauri A and B. Despite its relatively dim appearance, Proxima Centauri gained considerable attention in recent years due to the discovery of an exoplanet in its habitable zone, Proxima b, which has sparked interest in the search for potentially habitable worlds beyond our solar system.

Beta Centauri (Hadar): Beta Centauri, also known by its traditional name Hadar, is another bright star in the constellation. It is a blue-white giant star of magnitude 0.6 located approximately 390 light-years away from Earth. Beta Centauri is notable for its high luminosity and variability in brightness, suggesting that it is a spectroscopic binary system. The name Hadar is derived from the Arabic word for "ground," reflecting its position at the foot of the celestial centaur.

Theta Centauri (Menkent): Theta Centauri is one of the brighter stars in the constellation Centaurus, with an apparent magnitude of approximately 2.06. This makes it readily visible to the naked eye under dark sky conditions, particularly in the southern hemisphere where it is more prominently positioned. Its distinctive orange hue adds to its visibility and makes it stand out among the surrounding stars.

4. Deep-Sky Objects

Omega Centauri (NGC 5139): Omega Centauri is one of the largest and brightest globular clusters in the Milky Way galaxy. Located approximately 15,800 light-years away from Earth, Omega Centauri contains millions of stars densely packed into a spherical shape. It is visible to the naked eye as a fuzzy patch of light in the night sky and appears as a spectacular sight through telescopes. Omega Centauri is believed to be the remnant core of a dwarf galaxy that was absorbed by the Milky Way, making it a valuable object for studies of galactic formation and evolution.

NGC 5128 (Centaurus A Galaxy): NGC 5128, also known as the Centaurus A galaxy, is an active galaxy located approximately 11 million light-years away from Earth. It is classified as a peculiar type of elliptical galaxy, exhibiting both features of elliptical and spiral galaxies. Centaurus A is a powerful source of radio and X-ray emissions, believed to be produced by a supermassive black hole at its center. 

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Update Date: 29 Feb 2024