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A Truly Australian Star

As darkness descends around the end of December into early January evenings, a star within the Southern Cross with a uniquely Australian name lies near the southern horizon. As it ascends higher into the sky through the night, celebrate the new year with the knowledge that our ancient cultural history is recognised in the stars.

The Australasian Dark Sky Association held a recent webinar on the topic of cultural Australian Astronomy. One piece of very interesting information was that one of the stars of the Southern Cross is officially given, through the International Astronomical Union (IAU), an Australian Aboriginal name.

The major stars of the 88 recognised constellations are named according to the Greek alphabet (the Beyer Designation); where the brightest star is called Alpha, the next brightest Beta…and so forth. The name following the Greek letter is also Latinised. Thus, for the Southern Cross (Crux Australis), the five brightest stars, as represented on the Australian flag, are α-Crucis, β-Crucis, γ-Crucis, δ-Crucis and ε-Crucis. (Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon).

Before modern scientific designation many cultures had their own star names, and for many of the more prominent stars these are still commonly used. Well known examples include Antares (α-Scorpii), Sirius (α-Canis Majoris) and Rigel (β-Orionis).

What delighted me from the seminar was that the fifth-brightest star of the Southern Cross, Epsilon, is also officially recognised as Ginan, from the Wardaman people of the Northern Territory. And a little internet research soon revealed that it is not the only star recognised by a uniquely Australian name. There are actually four. They are:

Larawag (ε-Scorpii): the signal watcher

Wurren (ζ-Phoenicis): child or little fish

Unurgunite (σ-Canis Majoris): ancestral figure with two wives; and

Ginan (ε-Crucis): a red dilly-bag filled with special songs of knowledge

There is another interesting cultural name among the stars of the Cross. Alpha- and Gamma-Crucis are otherwise known simply as Acrux and Gacrux. Beta-Crucis is also fairly well-known as Mimosa, whilst Delta-Crucis is also called Imai, from the Mursi people of Ethiopia. This was also a name I wasn’t aware of, and another example of the IAU recognising cultural significance in modern astronomy.

Who knew? More of us should. Let’s especially celebrate those truly Australian stars in the new year.

The fifth brightest star of the Southern Cross is recognised by the IAU as Ginan, an Australian Aboriginal name from the Northern Territory.


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