Thursday, 8 September 2011

Star Light, Star Bright

onight, just after sunset (British time) you’ll get the best view of a new supernovava – assuming, that is,  there are no clouds, you live out in the countryside where there is no light pollution, and you have a pair of good binoculars or a small telescope.

Just look for the constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear –it’s the one that looks like a saucepan - then find the two stars at the tip of the handle (OK, I realise bears don’t have handles, but saucepans do, and it’s the only way I can describe it), look up from them and a little bit to the left, and hey presto, there’s the supernova. 
The Great Bear
You won’t, of course, be able to see it with your naked eye, and even with a telescope or binoculars it’s only going to be a tiny blob of light up there in the Pinwheel Galaxy, which is one of those fabulous spirals, with fiery arms flinging out into space, a bit like a giant Catherine wheel.

Anyway, the supernova, a dying star, is at its brightest tonight, but if you do spot it you’ll be looking at a kind of visual echo of an event which happened some 21 million light years ago (or do I mean away?),  for the star has already died  and it’s taken that long for its light to reach us. The time and distance involved are incomprehensible. It’s really awesome.

Sadly, my chances of seeing this are negligible to non-existent: even if the skies are clear, Tamworth is so built up, with so many lights from streets and buildings, that it’s impossible to get a clear view of the night sky, even if we had binoculars.or a telescope.

Amateurs with their small telescopes may still be able to see the supernova (PTF11kly) for a few days, but professional astronomers hope to study it for longer than that, searching for clues about the expansion of the universe. This particular supernova is the closest to earth for 40 years and was spotted at a very early stage, making it one of the youngest to be examined, which sounds a bit of a contradiction in terms since a star at the end of its life is very old indeed.
The Pinwheel Galaxy
 A supernova occurs, apparently, when a star at the end of its life – known as a white dwarf - collapses in itself and explodes. As I understand it (I am a writer, not a scientist) a white dwarf is the remains of a red giant, one of the later stages of a star, which seems to evolve through various forms. Personally, I think the whole thing sounds like something Terry Pratchett might have created in Discworld, so please tell me if I’ve got this wrong.

Meanwhile, let’s drink a toast to PTF11kly, who surely deserves a catchier name than that, and celebrate with some glitter and sparkle. You could listen to Holst’s Planet Suite (after all, stars and planets are both found in space), or eat a certain type of chocolate beginning with ‘G’...  And if anyone can recommend an-easy-to-understand book about stars and such like I would be very grateful.

1 comment:

  1. How awesome ~ wish I was there to enjoy...:>(


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