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ALTARF

(Beta Cancri). Surely, if Cancer (the Crab) were anywhere but on the ecliptic, the apparent pathway of the Sun, it never would have been made into a constellation by the ancients. Its brightest star, Altarf, is fourth magnitude, though in its favor (at 3.59) it is just over the line from third. Though the luminary of the constellation, it still received the Beta designation from Bayer. Marking one of the celestial Crab's legs, Altarf -- from Arabic meaning "the End" -- is rather distant from the most prominent part of the constellation, the four-star "manger" at the center, which contains the naked-eye Beehive cluster. Altarf is a mid-temperature (4,320 Kelvin) orange giant of class K. At a distance of 290 light years (which accounts for its relative faintness), it actually shines (accounting for a fair bit of infrared radiation) 660 times brighter than our Sun, from which we find a true giant diameter 53 times solar, 65 percent the size of Mercury's orbit. A direct measure of angular diameter gives a similar true diameter 48 times solar, showing that the measures of the star's properties are consistent. This large star takes almost two full Earth-years to make a full rotation. Though about the same color and temperature as much better known Aldebaran, Altarf has twice the luminosity, and is thus on the bright side of gianthood. It began life as a star of about three solar masses, though it is quite difficult to tell, as in its stage of life, stars of different masses rather gang together at similar temperatures and luminosities. Similarly, though the star is clearly dying, it is hard to tell just what state it is in, though most likely it is now fusing its core helium into carbon and oxygen. Altarf has a rather distant, very faint, fourteenth magnitude companion, that from its actual luminosity must be an ordinary red dwarf of class M. At an angular distance of 29 seconds of arc, the companion is at least 2600 astronomical units (65 times the distance of Pluto from the Sun) from the bright giant. The two move through space together and are almost certainly real companions, though no orbital motion can be seen, no surprise given that the period is at least 76,000 years! From the companion, Altarf would shine with 30 times the brilliance of our full Moon. Altarf is a mild "barium star" that has a barium abundance six times solar. Barium stars are thought have been contaminated with by-products of nuclear fusion by companions that have already evolved and died and are now white dwarfs (like Sirius B), though no such star has ever been found.