Thursday, July 24, 2014

Start the year with the stars

December 29. 2013 5:46PM
By Tom Burns

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A lot of people picking up the newspaper New Year’s morning morning will do so so with dry mouths and pounding heads. How many people do you know who are waking up that morning with eyes that look like roadmaps of the Los Angeles freeway system?

It is ironic that a season that is supposed to be reserved for reflection and resolution is often spent drinking excessively and wearing lampshades. I’d like to suggest an alternative.

When nature favors us with a clear night, my good buddy and observing partner Biff Smooter always takes his family observing on New Year’s Eve. He calls such excursions “star parties,” and they make an excellent alternative to the usual rounds of meaningless carousing. After all, you don’t have to work tomorrow. And there’s nothing like spending a freezing cold night out in the middle of nowhere.

Right now, as we speak, the planet Jupiter rises in the east just after dark. Enjoy it to the right of the celestial twins of Gemini, Castor and Pollux.

Winter is the best time to observe the most spectacular of astronomical objects—the Great Nebula in the constellation Orion. It is what Biff likes to call a “star cradle,” a place in the galaxy where new stars are being born.

So, imagine yourself out in the middle of some farmer’s field, the new year about to begin, and let’s find it.

Look in the south for the constellation of Orion. It looks like a rough rectangle of stars standing up on its narrow end. The top two stars are the shoulders of Orion, the hunter, and the bottom two are his feet. In the middle of the rectangle is a horizontal row of evenly spaced stars of about equal brightness. They form the belt of Orion. Directly below the left star in the belt is a thin patch of stars hanging down from the belt. This area is called the sword of Orion. It resolves into a beautiful collection of stars in binoculars. Near the center of those stars is a fuzzy patch of light—the Orion Nebula, M42.

In even a small telescope, the Great Nebula reveals a wealth of detail.

I’ve observed this object hundreds of times, and I always notice some beautiful new detail each time I look.

Two long streams of light hook outward from the main patch at the center. The main portion is broken up into smaller patches by thin, dark lines. The entire area is filled with wisps and filaments of nebulosity.

What you are seeing is about 1500 light years away, meaning that it took the faint glow of light that you are seeing about 1500 years to get here.

The Orion Nebula is the stuff of which stars are made—a cloud of hydrogen gas and dust that is slowly collapsing into stars.

The obvious question is, how can we see the Orion Nebula if it is made up only of dust and hydrogen gas? The nebula is actually fluorescing. The hydrogen gas is ignited by the bright stars forming inside of it, kind of like a spark of electricity ignites the gas in a fluorescent light bulb.

It looks substantial enough in a telescope, but the density of hydrogen atoms is so low that it would be considered a vacuum on earth.

Some of those stars are easily visible in a telescope. At the center of the nebulosity are four stars in a rough square that are the crown jewels of the nebula. This star cluster is called the Trapezium.

Because they are new stars, they burn with an almost pure white intensity.

These infant stars have perhaps another 10 billion years or so in their long lifespan.

Such stars are the most powerful continuing units of energy in creation. If all the nuclear weapons on earth exploded at once (heaven forbid), the resulting explosion would be just a momentary blip compared to the massive energies that are produced every second in the centers of the stars in the Trapezium.

Just off to the side of the Trapezium is a dark streak of nebulosity called the Fish’s Mouth. It is one of the few “dark nebulas” that is easily visible in small telescopes. It is not illuminated by any central stars like the Orion Nebula is. The fact that we can see it at all is the result of a simple cosmic coincidence. It is silhouetted against the lit background of the Great Nebula, and we see it only because it obscures the bright background.

If New Year’s Eve is supposed to be a time to put things into perspective, then there is nothing more awe-inspiring and humbling than to swing your telescope around to the Great Nebula just at the clock strikes midnight. It is a heady experience indeed as the New Year is born to watch the birth of stars.

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