Starry Starry Night

January 8, 2013 Comments Off on Starry Starry Night

This week my head is in the clouds, oops make that the stars, with upcoming winter star programs this weekend at Sugarloaf and Caribou Highlands. Have had Don McLean, and Vincent Van Gough in my head all week. This is mostly because my computer star program is called Starry Night, it always triggers it- just can’t help it!

The constellation Orion is probably one of the easiest constellations to find and recognize in the winter sky, and one of the most fascinating. I tend to think about northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere constellations, and hadn’t really thought about the fact that Orion is visible to most of the world at some point in the year. It can be seen from 85 degrees latitude in the northern hemisphere to 75 degrees in the southern- that’s a pretty far reach! The main reason for this is that the belt of Orion lies pretty much right on what we could call the equator for stars -if we extended our planetary equator into space and looked at constellations that lie along that line.

Most of the major stars that comprise Orion are blue giants or supergiants which puts them in the category of young bright stars, which makes a crazy kind of sense when you consider portions of Orion are famous for their nebula- the Orion nebula, the Horsehead Nebula, The Flame Nebula, and many more, all of which are nurseries for the birth of young stars. Of course it’s not like all of these nebula and stars are in exactly the same neighborhood, since many of them are thousands of light years apart. It’s just an interesting thought and definitely a region of the sky where there is a lot going on.

The brightest star in Orion most of the time is Rigel. This is Orion’s left foot or the star in the lower left corner of Orion. This bright blue star is thought to be about 10 million years old, about 773 light years away from Earth, equal to the mass of 17 suns and gives off 85,000 times more light than the sun. That’s a pretty impressive resume for a star, and in the greater scheme of stars visible in the northern hemisphere it is the 6th brightest star in the sky. Because occasionally, very occasionally, there is a star in Orion that is brighter than Rigel it gets the rating of Beta Orion, which means it occupies second place in brightness even though it’s brightest most of the time.

The Alpha Orion title, or the brightest star rating belongs to Betelgeuse, even though it falls to second place most often. However, looking at the rest of the resume for Betelgeuse gives you an understanding of why that title might hold regardless. Betelgeuse is a Red Giant reaching the end of its life. But check it out –at 643 light years away, it is thought to give off more light than 100,000 suns, and is the 8th brightest star in the northern hemisphere. Betelgeuse is found at the upper left shoulder of Orion.

This ancient star is expected to explode into a supernova at any time. Actually at 643 light years away it could have already happened and we just don’t know it yet! It’s an imprecise estimate, it could have already happened, or may be more than a million years away, a mere drop in the space time continuum. When Betelgeuse goes supernova, it is expected that the event will be so bright in the night sky that it will cast shadows like the moon. It is also thought that it will be visible in the daytime for several weeks after the explosion. Talk about going out with a bang. And if you really want to learn more about this, do a little internet surfing and look for SNEWS (SuperNova Early Warning System). In the current model of particle physics, neutrinos are thought be given off earlier than light and could tell us where to be looking for the next supernova event. You could even learn about this on your smart phone- yes, there’s an app for that!

So if you want to hear more about the stars join us at Sugarloaf at 7:00pm on Saturday, January 12th. There will be much more to talk about- and hopefully stars to look at directly if its clear- otherwise its Starry Night for us inside- which some have told me is even better than outside because you can control it and make it do what you want when you want. That point may be debatable but hopefully we have wet your appetite to hear more and you will come join us.

Until next week!

These updates are made possible by a generous donation from David and Rosemary Good.