Friday 13 September 2013

The Female Centaurs

I gave a talk about the Female Centaurs a few days ago. Don't worry – I'm not going to reproduce it in full here. However, one or two remarks made set me thinking and I'm going to explore those a bit further. I'm also going to reflect on what led me to work with these particular Centaurs. And I'm going to do it in digestible chunks.

First of all, a brief history of the Centaurs. Chiron was, of course, the first to be discovered back in 1977. Although named after a centaur, he was classed as an anomalous object at first because he didn't fit in to any of the existing categories. He was sometimes called a planetoid. He was given an asteroid number, even though his orbit – between Saturn and Uranus – was far beyond the main asteroid belt. Some years after his discovery, as he moved closer to the Sun, he developed a tail and was designated a comet. He still retains both his asteroid and comet number to this day.

Then in 1992, another Chiron-like object was discovered, this time orbiting between Saturn and Neptune. It was named Pholus, after the only other wise centaur. The following year a third body was discovered, this time with an orbit that ranged between Saturn and Pluto. So we had three Chiron-like objects, each acting as a bridge between Saturn and the three outer planets – and each revealing themselves in the correct order. Isn't the Universe amazing sometimes?

Anyone who was interested in Chiron from the early days will remember that he was considered a bridge between the traditional planets and the outer ones, because his orbit ranged between the two. He and his fellow Centaurs turned out to be a bridge between astrologers and astronomers as well, as a dialogue was established between a small but dedicated band of the former and an open-minded group of the latter. Anyone interested in this can read more on Zane Stein's website ( Astrologers formed the Centaur Research Project to study the characteristics of these small astronomical bodies that were turning up with increasing frequency ( They suggested names based on their studies, many of which were supported by the astronomers involved and in turn accepted by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The third Centaur, Nessus, was the first whose name was proposed by astrologers and accepted by the astronomical community. There are now dozens of known Centaurs but only 17 have been named so far, the latest – Rhiphonos – as recently as July 2013.

So where do the female Centaurs fit in? Well, these are bodies whose orbits aren't quite like those of the other Centaurs. They tend to be gentler and less markedly orbit-crossers. Their stories are also gentler and less bloody. Anyone who has read about the centaurs – in Ovid's Metamorphosis, say – will know that they're a pretty savage, uncivilised bunch who can't hold their drink and usually meet a violent and bloody end. In fact, only one of the female centaurs dies and that's by her own hand – the only suicide among the centaurs. But more of that later. All you need to know for now is that, as with the first three Centaurs' journeys, which took us from Saturn out to Pluto, the females bring us back again … in their order of discovery.

The first female Centaur – Hylonome – was discovered in 1995. She orbits mainly between Uranus and Neptune but just dips a toe into Pluto's realm. The second one – Chariklo – was discovered in 1997. She orbits between Saturn and Uranus, just like Chiron (she is, in fact, his wife). Her orbit, though, gets closer to Uranus than to Saturn, whereas Chiron's does the opposite. The third – Okyrhoe – was discovered in 1998. She orbits between Jupiter and Saturn, crossing the orbit of the latter.

So what drew me to work with these particular Centaurs? If only I could answer that. At the beginning of the year I'd got a pretty good idea of what the next three years had in store for me, which was a course of postgraduate study. With time on my hands during the Christmas break, I started delving into the minor bodies that have been discovered in the last twenty years. I wasn't even primarily interested in Centaurs – their names were strange, they weren't particularly nice characters on the whole and they didn't resonate with me. When I came across mention of female centaurs, I thought the idea was faintly ridiculous: 'there's no such thing.' Next thing I found the dry, dusty corridors of academia receding hurriedly into the background and I was running with the wild mares of Thessaly, as Centauros, the father of the centaurs had done. And it was exciting! More than that I cannot say. There was no conscious decision on my part; I was suddenly swept up and I just had to go with it.

Of course, the transiting Neptune square to my natal Sun, Mercury and Jupiter might have played a part. As might the fact that all three female Centaurs have been journeying through Sagittarius (of all signs) for nearly the last two years, at varying times opposing that same stellium and then my natal Mars. Who knows? All I can say is that, so far, I'm enjoying the ride.

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