The Bluest Star

An artist's impression of the outer layers of the star Naos (zeta Puppis). Credit: Wikipedia.

An artist’s impression of the outer layers of the star Naos (zeta Puppis). Credit: Wikipedia.

Scattered in a thick band south of Canis Major lie the stars and star clusters of the constellation Puppis. There are no stars here to visually rival the brilliant stars of the Big Dog or Orion further to the north and west. But visual appearances are deceiving because among the stars of Puppis is one of the most luminous and hottest stars in our part of the galaxy, the star Naos or zeta Puppis…

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The Allure of Carbon Stars

The carbon star R Leporis. Credit: Damian Peach

The carbon star R Leporis. Credit: Damian Peach

For visual observers with small optics, the colors of the deep sky range from subtle to nonexistent. Galaxies and nebulae cast too little light to stimulate the color-sensing cone cells in our retinas, so they appear pale gray-white or, in the case of a bright planetary nebulae, gray-green. Bright stars are a little more colorful. Betelgeuse appears clearly orange, even to the unaided eye, Rigel shines blue-white, and the showpiece double star Albireo in the constellation Cygnus shows off a blue-green primary and red-orange secondary in even the smallest telescope. Otherwise, star colors are quite subtle, especially to new stargazers. But there is one exception– carbon stars. These deep ruby-red stars, which dredge up nuclear soot from their innards, give off a striking glow that’s easy to see in a small telescope. See your first carbon star and you’ll want to see many more…

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The Golden Light of a Winter Solstice

“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.”
― John Steinbeck

On December 21, 2016 at 10:44 Universal Time, the Sun reaches the December solstice, its most southern point on the ecliptic. This marks the first day of winter in the northern hemisphere and the first day of summer in the southern hemisphere…

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Johannes Kepler: Mathematician, Mystic… Murderer?

Johannes Kepler

Johannes Kepler

The progress of science sometimes comes down to an unlikely partnership, a combination of the right people studying the right problem at the right time. In the pantheon of unlikely partners, few can top the team of Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe, two men of polar-opposite personalities who finally cracked the secret of the motion of the planets. Here is their story…

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Sun Unexpectedly Swells to Red Giant

The Sun unexpectedly has swollen to a red-orange on April 1, 2016 as seen over southern California.

The Sun unexpectedly has swollen to a red-orange on April 1, 2016 as seen over southern California.

In a development that has shocked astrophysicists around the world, the Sun has unexpectedly run out of hydrogen fuel in its core. As gravity squeezed the collapsing core, the dense plasma increased in temperature and ignited helium burning, causing the outer layers to swell into a red giant. Reports suggest the two inner planets, Mercury and Venus, have been swallowed by the expanding star. On Earth, students in the northern hemisphere have been released from school to start summer break early. While astronomers are perplexed, health professionals strongly recommend a thick layer of sunscreen for anyone venturing outside, at least until someone can figure out how to restock the supply of hydrogen gas in the Sun’s core.

In a media report, Professor Cedric Doppleganger, of the California Institute of Astrophysics, said that although the Sun’s sudden expansion violates all known laws of physics, that researchers are undeterred. “It just goes to show that the science of solar physics isn’t so settled after all.”

(On April 2nd and beyond, the above image will be of the setting of a calm main sequence G-type star on a windy evening at Santa Monica Beach, California.)

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A Look Back at Comet Hale-Bopp

Comet Hale-Bopp at sunrise on March 21, 1997 (credit: Cherie Benoit at Flickr)

Comet Hale-Bopp at sunrise on March 21, 1997 (credit: Cherie Benoit at Flickr)

At any particular time, a half-dozen or more comets are visible with a good-sized amateur telescope. But a bright comet is a once-in-a-decade event at best, and a Great Comet, one that grows bright enough to capture wide attention, is rarer still.  Recently there have been two Great Comets visible to observers in the southern hemisphere, Comet McNaught in 2007 and Comet Lovejoy in 2011. But it’s been a long drought for stargazers in the northern hemisphere, where no spectacular comet has been seen since 1997 when the mighty Comet C/1995 O1, better known as Comet Hale-Bopp, barreled in from the outer solar system and put on one of the most watched celestial shows in modern history…

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Real-Time Video of Aurorae Borealis

The Aurora…As It Actually Appeared from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.

If you live in a subtropical or temperate part of the globe, or if you live in a light-polluted northern or southern metropolis, you may have gone a long time without seeing a live show of the aurorae borealis or australis. So for your viewing pleasure, I present to you in the above video a real-time view of a recent auroral display that shows a very close approximation what of this famous and mesmerizing upper-atmospheric phenomenon looks like when you see it with your own eye…

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The Dusty Birth of a New Star

A newly formed star lights up the surrounding cosmic clouds in this image from ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. Dust particles in the vast clouds that surround the star HD 97300 diffuse its light, like a car headlight in enveloping fog, and create the reflection nebula IC 2631. Although HD 97300 is in the spotlight for now, the very dust that makes it so hard to miss heralds the birth of additional, potentially scene-stealing, future stars. Credit: ESO.

A newly formed star lights up the surrounding cosmic clouds in this image from ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. Dust particles in the vast clouds that surround the star HD 97300 diffuse its light, like a car headlight in enveloping fog, and create the reflection nebula IC 2631. Although HD 97300 is in the spotlight for now, the very dust that makes it so hard to miss heralds the birth of additional, potentially scene-stealing, future stars. Credit: ESO.

This marvelous image from the European Southern Observatory shows a small section of the Milky Way going about its business making new stars. Here you see in this dusty region the reflected light of a new main sequence star, HD 97300, as it settles down into its billion-year life span…

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The Jellyfish Nebula

The Jellyfish Nebula (IC443) at upper left is a supernova remnant in the constellation Gemini. It lies adjacent to the emission nebula Sharpless 249 at lower right. Image credit: Jeff Johnson at jeffjastro.com/

The Jellyfish Nebula (IC443), upper left, is a supernova remnant in the constellation Gemini. It lies adjacent to the emission nebula Sharpless 249, a star forming region, at lower right in this image. Image credit: Jeff Johnson at jeffjastro.com

The Jellyfish Nebula, also called IC 443, is the sprawling remnant of a massive star that exploded as a supernova some 3,000 to 30,000 years ago in a gas-strewn patch of the Milky Way in the constellation Gemini. As you can see in the above image by Jeff Johnson, the shock wave from the explosion produced the particularly intricate lacework of nebulosity that makes up the Jellyfish. The nebula, which is about 5,000 light years away, is adjacent to a rich region of star formation called Sharpless 249.

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The Science of the Christmas Star

L_Adoration_des_Mages“O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect light.”

It may be the most famous star in history. But was it real? Mentioned just once in the gospel of Matthew, the “Star of Bethlehem”, or the “Christmas Star”, may have guided three wise men from the East in search of a newborn king. A few words written on a scroll two thousand years ago isn’t much to go on, but astronomers have a few ideas that may explain the apparition of a star near the time of the birth of Jesus.

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