by Mario Carr
I would like to dedicate this month’s column to my Grandfather, Ovidio Celeste. His love of the New Brunswick outdoors inspired my interest in nature, which led to a passion in astronomy. He recently died at 98.
As last year ends, 2011 begins. Death brings life, which is a constant theme throughout nature and to the billions of stars in the universe.
Though stars seem immortal, they’re not.
Stars begin their lives in interstellar gas cloud nurseries called nebulae when hydrogen clumps together to form protostars. As these protostars grow in size, they become hotter. If they become big enough, nuclear fusion will transform hydrogen into helium, releasing energy and a star is born. If these prostars don’t grow big enough to create heat for fusion, they remain as brown dwarfs.
If you’re a star, mass matters. Smaller stars live longer because they consume less hydrogen.
One of the granddaddies of all stars is Eta Carinae, which is about 8,000 light years away and is about 3 million years old. It’s 150 times more massive and burns 4 million times brighter than our sun. Because it’s quickly burning through its hydrogen fuel, astronomers think that it will only live for another 100,000 years. Some astronomers predict that it will blow up as a super nova sometime soon.
The ruminants of a super nova are so massive that they can collapse in on themselves to form a black hole. Gravity in a black hole is so intense that it becomes a huge interstellar vacuum cleaner, sucking up everything around it including light. What happens to matter and light after being sucked into a black hole, nobody really knows.
For the first time in history last November, astronomers witnessed the creation of a black hole about 50 million light years away. The super nova that created it was actually discovered by an amateur astronomer from West Maryland back in 1979.
Our sun, which is an average star, is about 5 billion years old and could live for another 5 billion years. At that time, it will consume all its hydrogen and will expand in our solar system to the orbit of Jupiter as a red giant. Then it will shrink to the size of the earth as a white dwarf.
Smaller stars which are 50 per cent less massive than our sun are called red dwarfs. Since they are smaller, they consume less fuel and aren’t as bright. They could live for an amazing 10 trillion years. That’s longer than the age of the universe.
During this month, Jupiter will set in the west around 10 p.m. and Saturn will rise in the east after 1 a.m. Mercury and Venus can be seen in the southeast during morning twilight. Mercury will be low in the sky.
Here are some important dates for January stargazers. Most events are listed in the Hamilton Amateur Astronomers calendar.
Jan. 1-5 – The Quadrantids meteor shower is best seen after midnight Jan. 3. Up to 40 per hour can be seen. It’s caused by debris form an extinct comet entering and burning in the atmosphere.
Jan. 3 – Believe it or not, the earth will be closer to the sun or at perihelion than at any other time of the year. So why is it so cold? Well you can thank the tilt of the earth for that.
Jan. 7 – Galileo discovered moons Io, Europe and Callisto, orbiting Jupiter in 1610.
Jan. 10 – Moon at apogee or furthest from the earth at 404,975 km.
Jan. 13 – Galileo discovered the moon Ganymede orbiting Jupiter in 1610.
Jan. 14 – Hamilton Amateur Astronomers meeting at 7:30 p.m., Hamilton Spectator building, 44 Frid St., Hamilton. Feature speaker will be science journalist Dan Falk, whose topic will be Time. He is the author of two books Universe on a T-Shirt and In Search of Time. Falk has also written for numerous publications and has made documentaries for CBC Radio. Free admission with door prizes. Non-perishable donations will be collected for local food banks.
Jan. 19 – The full moon this month is known as the wolf moon.
Jan. 22 – Moon at perigee or closet to the earth at 362,792 km.
Jan. 29 – The moon nears Venus in the morning sky.
For more information, please see the Hamilton Amateur Astronomers web site at http://www.amateurastronomy.org or call (905) 627-4323.
Mario Carr is the director of public education, Hamilton Amateur Astronomers and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Starry starry starry night: Star count may triple to 300 sextillion (thenewstribune.com)
- Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity (blogs.discovermagazine.com)
- Starwatch: January’s sky brings meteors and solar eclipse (guardian.co.uk)