Village Sky At Night with Brian Watkiss

Spot the red giants

Posted on January 13 2010 at 10:48:28 0 comments

Amateur astronomer Brian Watkiss peers into the Village night sky.

February should see the launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour on STS130. It’s due on the 4th but launches are often delayed so look out for it on the news, then follow it on to see if it is visible over Alvechurch, either before docking with or after undocking from the ISS.

There are only five more Shuttle launches due and everyone should try to see one flying in formation with the Space Station.

Here in Alvechurch world, looking south at about 8 o’clock in the evening, the sky is dominated by the wonderful constellation of Orion, The Hunter. The three stars of his belt are very distinct, and hanging down from his belt are the three stars of his sword.

The middle star sits in the beautiful Orion nebula, a cloud of gas where stars are being formed, just visible with the naked eye and a great target for binoculars. Orion contains two “Red Giant” stars; the bottom right star, Rigel, and top left, Betelgeuse.

These are stars which have burnt all of their hydrogen, so have cooled and expanded, nearly reaching the end of their lives, when they will probably explode in a supernova. Indeed, they may have already done so, unknown to us, as it takes several hundred years for their light to reach Earth.

Up and to the right of Orion is the “V” of Taurus, with Aldebaran – another red giant – looking like its big, red eye. Up and right again is the beautiful little cluster of stars, the Pleiades. Looking to the left of Orion, about as far as Pleiades is to the right and just as high, is a pair of stars. These are Castor, at the top, and Pollux below.

They are the heads of the twins of Gemini, with their bodies stretching out, down and to the right. Pollux is also a red giant, albeit a tiny one, being just 18 times the size of our Sun. It is also one of the closest, at a mere 33 light years away, and it is one of the few stars visible to the naked eye known to have a planet.

Further east, Mars is now visible, very bright and very orange. At this time, Mars is said to be in “Opposition”. That is to say, Earth is precisely between the Sun and Mars, so it is the brightest it will be this year and is at its highest, and exactly south, at midnight.

It is also sitting in the middle of an inverted “Y” of stars which make up Cancer. See if you can make out this faint constellation around New Moon, on the 14th of the month. On the 21st, the first quarter Moon will pass in front of (occult) the cluster of Pleiades.

Finally, did you catch the partial lunar eclipse on New Year’s Eve? It was a crystal clear evening! No? Well, it’s a good job I managed to photograph it then.

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