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Village Sky At Night with Brian Watkiss

Shuttling into history

Posted on March 21 2011 at 3:45:06 0 comments

Amateur astronomer Brian Watkiss peers into the Village night sky.

Space Shuttle Discovery successfully launched at the end of February, delivering a storage facility to the International Space station and returning several crew from there.

It landed at Kennedy Space Centre and after 27 years, 30 space flights and a total of 352 days in orbit it, is to be shuttled off into retirement in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.

If you ever get the chance to visit this amazing building, do so; its contents are far more interesting and exciting than that of the White House opposite. Another mission is due to launch on the 19th of this month, the very last flight of Endeavour (with a ‘u’ because it is named after a famous sailing vessel).

As usual, keep an eye on http://www.heavens-above.com for sightings; there will only be one more Shuttle flight – ever.

Here in Alvechurch World, it doesn’t get dark till half eight now and the huge constellation of Orion soon disappears in the west. The red supergiant star Betelgeuse at the top left has been the subject of some speculation recently, with the news that it will explode soon and become a second Sun (a certain publishing friend is hoping that it will happen at night so that he can play golf 24 hours a day!).

It is true that it is expected to explode (as mentioned in this column last year) but possibly not for tens of millions of years; or it may already have happened. Betelgeuse is over 600 light years away, so we may not know for some time and at this distance it will never be as big and bright as our Sun, although it will be visible in daylight.

High in the south now is another question mark, this one reversed though. It is the head of Leo, probably the best of the constellations in the Zodiac because it does resemble a huge lion.

The brightest star, at the bottom of the question mark, is Regulus, the ‘Heart of the Lion’. It is in fact a collection of at least four stars, about 72 light years away, one of which is a White Dwarf.

The main star of the group is about five times bigger than our Sun and much hotter. It rotates once every 15 hours or so, which is incredibly fast and this causes it to bulge out around the middle, like a little white dwarf astronomer! Indeed, if it were to spin any faster it would fly apart.

If you take a line from Regulus, through the star at the other end of the question mark and continue for the same distance again, you should arrive at the brightest star in the constellation of the Lynx. Unlike Leo, this constellation is in no way feline in form, consisting of an indistinct, straggly line of stars leading away up and to the right.

It was, in fact, invented by Polish astronomer, Johannes Hevelius, in the 17th century, to ‘use up’ stars not technically in constellations either side. He gave it this name because you need eyes like a lynx to see it!

Honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up!


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