The year 2018 winds down with the apparition of the modest but easily observable Comet 46/P (Wirtanen). This periodic comet will not rival some of the better “Comets of Christmas Past” such as Comet McNaught in 2006, Comet Hale-Bopp as it brightened towards the end of 1996, or even the relatively disappointing Comet Kohoutek in 1973. But Comet Wirtanen will grow bright enough to see with binoculars and, in dark sky, with the naked eye as it passes through some of the most prominent constellations of the season. It’s a great excuse to dust off your optics and get outside to enjoy the solar system in action and share the view with those around you [Read more…] about The Christmas Comet of 2018Share This:
In the vast expanse of sky between the brilliant stars Antares in the west and Sirius in the east, there lies but a single bright star of note, the star Fomalhaut. Low and prominent over the southern horizon, this lovely white star is a lonely sight on a northern fall evening. Fomalhaut marks the mouth of the constellation Piscis Austrinus (the Southern Fish). The star is a pretty enough sight for casual stargazers this time of year, and it offers a very widely spaced companion that’s easy to see in binoculars. The star also hosts at least one ring of glowing dust and debris left over from its birth. And where there’s dust, there may very well be planets… [Read more…] about The Lonely Star of AutumnShare This:
It was a discovery nearly a century in the making, but astronomers have finally detected a planet around the speedy little red dwarf known as Barnard’s Star. The existence of the planet is not particularly surprising given the vast harvest of exoplanets discovered since 1995 around all manner of stars. Nor is the planet a habitable world, to be sure. But it was welcome news nonetheless to find that the nearest single star to Earth has at least one planet in its relatively feeble gravitational embrace.
In many ways, Barnard’s Star was the “white whale” of exoplanet hunters. That’s because the star is close, just six light years away, the second-closest star system to Earth, which should make it easier to find an orbiting planet. And the star is prominent because of its speedy apparent motion across the sky. Barnard’s Star is also old, more than twice the age of our own solar system, so it’s had plenty of time to form a planetary system. But for nearly a hundred years, astronomers have examined the star for evidence of a planetary system using visual observation, photographic imaging, and finally using modern spectroscopic planet-hunting techniques. They came up empty every time [Read more…] about Barnard’s Star Has a Planet After AllShare This:
Unlike galaxies and star clusters and even emission nebulae, the class of objects known as planetary nebulae exist on a scale of space and time that’s comprehensible, relevant, and compelling to most humans.
Comprehensible because these tenuous exhalations of dying stars are roughly the size of a solar system, which means light can pass from one end of the nebula to the other in just a few hours, and even our current spacecraft could cross some of these nebulae in a matter of years.
Relevant because our own Sun will expire after creating its own planetary nebula in a few billion years when our star’s inner core boils off its outer layers in an intermittent nuclear frenzy.
And compelling because as you observe these objects with your telescope, you may be witnessing the death of other solar systems which once harbored intelligent civilizations that long ago passed into oblivion, or perhaps learned to travel elsewhere in the galaxy before it was too late. Amateur astronomy is, after all, a pastime of the imagination [Read more…] about The Cat’s Eye NebulaShare This:
Take any three stars and they’ll form some kind of triangle. But there is only one constellation Triangulum. It’s a small but ancient star group surrounded by the larger constellations Andromeda to the north and west, Pisces to the southwest, Aries to the south, and Perseus to the northeast. While modest, Triangulum hosts many fine sights for stargazers on a northern autumn (or southern spring) evening. Look for it about 10º due south of the star Almaak (γ Andromedae) and just northeast of Aries [Read more…] about A Trek Through TriangulumShare This: