Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Taurus

As first appeared in the November 2009 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

This month’s constellation is one of the best in the Night Sky for combining ancient tradition, mythology, modern astronomy, world history, stellar eye candy, and even modern engineering into one reasonably small bordered pen of celestial real estate. The early evening sight of the constellation Taurus the Bull in the November southeast sky at Darling Hill might appear to CNY viewers as a snow divining rod pointing to the western Great Lakes in anticipation of winter and the upcoming lake-effect snow. Taurus is a distinctive constellation and very easy to identify once its central asterism is identified. The brightest star in the constellation is almost equidistant from the easily identified Pleiades and the shoulder of the constellation Orion, the celestial hunter Taurus is running from as the sky appears to move (or, from the most commonly drawn orientation, right towards him!). While Taurus is mildly sparse in quantity when it comes to dark sky objects, it more than makes up for it in quality, hosting two of the most significant stellar sights in the Night Sky.

Like its neighbor Orion, Taurus the Bull is a very, very old constellation and has been recognized as a bull for the duration of its existence in Middle Eastern and European traditions. Earliest records of any kind place the birth of Taurus in the Copper (Chalcolithic) Age (4500 – 3500 B.C.E.), although some records support its existence even earlier. The presence of a bull and what appears to be a Pleiades-like star formation exists on a wall in the Lascaux Caves of France (see right). Although the interpretation of the Constellation set is controversial, this arrangement may date back as far as 16,500 years. Personally, I find even the thought of that kind of continuity between what we might see in the winter skies and what our ancestors also saw at night both comforting and humbling. Many of the same stand-out patterns we know today no doubt stood out immediately to them as the brightest objects in the sky marked out regular places as the Sun set, and the great distance we’ve traveled in history might be barely perceptible to an ancient astronomer going simply by the positions of stars.

Lascaux Cave bull and star pattern. From the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies and spacetoday.org.

We begin the tour by aiming our sights at the bright eye of the bull, the star Aldebaran. This orange giant is 44 times the diameter of our own Sun and has already used its hydrogen fuel, leaving this fusion engine to now graze on a steady diet of helium. Its name is derived from the Arabic for “the follower,” often reported as in reference to its position below the Pleiades (so “following” this open cluster as we progress into winter). The other stars in Taurus are easy to see in darker skies but not otherwise noteworthy for their brightness at either naked-eye or binocular viewing magnification. Several of the bright stars closest to Aldebaran make up an asterism that a new observer might confuse with the complete constellation. The V-shaped Hyades (center of the image below and shown at right with white border) are composed of five stars, with Aldebaran the brightest tip. I’ll admit that the first time I marked out the space for Taurus, I confused this asterism (and lambda-Tau to the west) with the entire object before double-checking the size. No bull. The Hyades star closest to Aldebaran, theta-Tau, is actually a pair of pairs, although they only appear as a single bright pair in binoculars and telescopes.

The Hyades (white) and Pleiades (red). From Lynn Laux, nightskyinfo.com.

Caught within the bull pen is the Pleiades (M45, shown labeled below from a Hubble image). This Tiny Dipper is visible year-round during the daytime in parking lots and slow-moving traffic everywhere (as the object embedded within the emblem on every Subaru, the Japanese name for this asterism) and is one of the treats of winter viewing in CNY (unless VERY early morning viewing is your game or you’ve been trying to see Mars in the late Summer skies, in which case you’ve been enjoying the pre-dawn sight of M45 since August). The amount of information available on the Pleiades online and as part of space research could easily (and very likely has) fill an entire book. While the seven bright stars are identified from Greek mythology as the Seven Sisters (Sterope, Merope, Electra, Maia, Taygete, Celaeno, and Alcyone), the counting aid that comes from a pair of binoculars easily reveals nine stars. The two stars that make up the handle of this tiny dipper are the proud parents Atlas and Pleione, placed to the east of the dipper to protect their daughters from either Taurus (for being a bull) or Orion (for being a male). Given the long history of this asterism, it is perhaps not surprising that the parents decided not to stop at seven. In fact, there are over 1,000 distinct stars in the Pleiades that have been revealed as part of multiple high-resolution studies. This density of stars makes the Pleiades a unique open cluster, as there is a wealth of stars and patterns visible at virtually any magnification, from small binoculars to the largest ground-based telescopes. For my first proper viewing session, I spent one full hour simply looking at this cluster through my Nikon 12×50’s, amazed at just how little we really see of the Night Sky using the 1×7 binoculars built into our heads (and, perhaps, corrected by horn-rimmed glasses).

The Pleiades in detail. Image from hubblesite.org and wikipedia.org

On the opposite side of Taurus and caught between the horns is the first of the categorized Messier objects, the Crab Nebula. M1 to its friends, this nebula is a supernova remnant with a remarkable history. As documented in both Arab and Chinese texts (Europe was just coming out its, er, Dark Ages at the time), this supernova was so bright on July 4, 1054 that it was visible during daylight hours (and, as you can guess by the date, visible without any magnification). The supernova remnant we know today as the Crab Nebula was discovered (and correlated to the original supernova) first by John Bevis in 1731, then by Charles Messier in 1758 while, as it happens, observing a comet (that Messier is known best for his catalogue of objects that were NOT comets instead of the comets he worked so diligently to discover is one of the great fun ironies of astronomy). The NASA images of the Crab Nebula reveal a dense sponge-like structure full of filaments of all sizes. The image above shows a remarkable sight – the full cycle of the pulsar at the heart of the crab that continues to magnetically drive the expansion of the nebula (in the series of frames, the pulsar lies below and to the right of a constant-brightness star).

The Crab Nebula pulsar. Image from www.strw.leidenuniv.nl

Stepping forward several hundred years, Taurus also marks the present locations of Pioneer 10 and COSMOS 1844. Pioneer 10 is currently speeding in the direction of Aldebaran, having been successfully steered through the asteroid belt to make a series of images of Jupiter. At its current velocity, this trip to Aldebaran’s current location would take 2 million years, about the same amount of time it might take most of the world to decipher the meaning of the emblematic plaque attached to its exterior (below). Perhaps someday we’ll have to explain to the aliens how a civilization that could launch a complicated probe into space couldn’t see the multitude of planets in their own Solar System, then perhaps have to explain what happened to Pluto hat it no longer appears in our Solar System images. COSMOS 1844 is one of over 2440 satellites launched by the Soviet Union (and now Russia) since the first of the COSMOS series in 1962. At mag. 5, this satellite makes for a fun artificial viewing target (with a good map in hand).

The Pioneer 10 plaque. From wikipedia.org.

The final sights for telescope viewers include four NGC objects. NGC 1746, 1647, and 1807 are open clusters with magnitudes between 6 and 7. NGC 1514 (below) is a mag 10 planetary nebula just at the far edge of the Taurus border that should be increasingly good viewing as Taurus works its way towards our zenith (1514 will be the closest it will get to our zenith by midnight, a perfect last-good-look before Darling Hill completely freezes over).

NGC 1514. From Martin Germano, seds.org)

Phenomenal viewing at a reasonably safe distance. Just be mindful not to wave your red flashlights at Aldebaran!

www.syracuse-astro.org
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taurus_%28constellation%29
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divining_rod
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Lakes
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lake_effect_snow
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orion_%28constellation%29
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chalcolithic
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lascaux_Caves
www.spacetoday.org/SolSys/Earth/OldStarCharts.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aldebaran
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyades_%28star_cluster%29
http://www.nightskyinfo.com/archive/hyades/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pleiades_%28star_cluster%29
http://www.subaru.com/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sterope_(Pleiad)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merope
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electra_(Pleiad)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maia_(mythology)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taygete
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celaeno
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcyone_(star)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlas_(mythology)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pleione_(mythology)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crab_Nebula
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_Ages
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Bevis
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Messier
http://www.nasa.gov
http://www.strw.leidenuniv.nl/~oberg/Pulsars/external.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pioneer_10
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jupiter
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pluto
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmos_%28satellite%29
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pioneer_plaque
http://server1.wikisky.org/starview?object_type=4&object_id=241&object_name=NGC+1746&locale=EN
http://server1.wikisky.org/starview?object_type=4&object_id=211&object_name=NGC+1647&locale=EN
http://server1.wikisky.org/starview?object_type=4&object_id=279&object_name=NGC+1807&locale=EN
http://seds.org/~spider/ngc/ngc.cgi?NGC1514

Syracuse Astronomical Society President’s Message for June, 2008

A repost of the original at the Syracuse Astronomical Society website.

Greetings fellow astrophiles!

We find ourselves approaching the first Society Meeting/Public Viewing of the Summer with (finally!) an excellent Spring viewing session behind us. And it has been a very busy 20+ days for our tax dollars since our last meeting, some of which I’ve tried to summarize (with pictures, of course) below. We find ourselves on the verge of another Summer Seminar that we’re in the process of planning out for late August. In even better news, the SAS regulars for the Public Viewing sessions have found themselves in the company of some new members and new scopes.

While timing and our usual Spring weather conditions have not been ideal for some member-specific “on call” outings (I’ve explained to new members that “on call” refers to being ready at a moment’s notice to drop evening plans to take in a good observing night, which happen so infrequently that you risk missing a rare golden opportunity if you don’t scoot up to Darling Hill when the email or bulletin board post shows up), we remain optimistic that a few reasonable nights lie ahead when we can splurge on the petrol to get us all to Darling Hill for some much needed observing.

Looking at this month’s top story…

Let Us Get The Mars News Out Of The Way…

May 25th (the day after our Saturday public viewing on the 24th, which was quite well attended and included plenty of talk about the events of the next day) saw the successful landing of the Phoenix Mars Lander at 125.74922W 68.21883N (or that’s where it looked like through my 25×100 binoculars), in the Mars North Polar Region. This is significant for a number of reasons.

1. This is the first of the Mars Scout Missions, which mark a shift at NASA towards low-cost/high-gain exploratory projects (an important selling point in the current economy, where science is definitely feeling the same budget pinches as everyone else).
2. This is only the 6th successful Mars landing out of a total of 12 missions (with the U.S. responsible for 7 of those total 12). Well, 12 acknowledged by various space administrations. Well, 12 from Earth anyway…
3. This has been just about the most exhaustively documented mission to Mars by spacecraft currently orbiting the Red Planet, using cutting edge technology to follow the progress of cutting edge technology. The results have been remarkable.

The spectacular photos from this mission began right from the capsule descent into the Martian atmosphere…

Decent of the Phoenix Lander from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
From photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov. Click for a larger view.

…continued with a photo taken of the Phoenix Lander from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

The Mars Phoenix Lander from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
From www.nasa.gov…lander-topviewcolor2-427.jpg. Click for a larger view.

…and culminated this past week with the first official confirmation of water (a before-and-after of disappearing ice, but we’ll take it) just below the surface.

Water ice on Mars! From www.sciencedaily.com. Click for a larger view.

And, of course, where there is/was water, there is/was the most important component of conditions necessary for biological processes AS WE KNOW THEM to occur. The lab-in-a-ship facilities on Phoenix will also test some of the other conditions (basic organic molecules).

But wait! There’s more!

I was quite pleased to stumble upon a “Big Picture” post at boston.com highlighting some of the best images and animations from Mars both on the ground and high in orbit. All are available from various NASA pages, but not so perfectly grouped and cropped.

A little perspective. Earth and Moon from Mars. Series at www.boston.com. Click for a larger view.

First Twice The Size, Now Half As Many Arms

While our Milky Way has remained exactly the same, our understanding of it has undergone quite a makeover this year. In the March/April message, I made mention of researchers at the University of Sydney discovering that the Milky Way is twice as wide as previous determined. Now, researchers analyzing Spitzer Space Telescope data have determined that our previously four-armed Milky Way galaxy is down to a very familiar two. Just like that, the common model changes, waiting for new data to confirm or alter what we think we know about our own galaxy. It makes a scientist feel good to know that there’s plenty, plenty we still don’t even know about our own backyard.

A new view of the Milky Way. From apod.nasa.gov. Click for a larger view.

The most interesting image to come from this work made the Astronomy Picture of the Day on June 6th and is shown below. You’ll note our location out towards the outer third of the galaxy in the Sagittarius Arm. Those that have been to a Public Viewing have seen any one of the green laser pointers lase out towards the constellation Sagittarius and remark on how that constellation is between ourselves and the center of the Milky Way (which places it in the vicinity of 0o Galactic Longitude). It is nice to have one’s bearings in the Night Sky! There are probably 100 billion such images on 100 billion worlds around the approximately 100 billion stars in our galaxy that all have themselves at the center of the radial plot.

I Didn’t Even Know It Was Sick

Dead Sun.” What a depressing thought. Beyond some potential global warming implications and our own discomfort at not being able to understand the one star we can’t do without, reports about the absence of Sun Spots and our lack of understanding about the situation hit me particularly hard because I finally decided that I wanted to take the Bader solar filters I made for my 25×100 binoculars at last year’s Summer Seminar and get some blue sky daytime viewing in. All that work and I’ll have to wait another few years for something to see?!

A boring day on the Sun. From www.spaceweather.com. Click for a larger view.

Admittedly, the headline’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but that is certainly not to say that the situation isn’t something to make astronomers and climatologists think.

And, if the Sun went nova right now, we wouldn’t know it for 7.5 minutes, the time it takes the light to reach the Earth (then there’s be the longer wait for all the debris, but let’s not think about it for another 2 or 3 billion years).

The “Barlow Bob” NEAF Special

I was happy to find a number of emails waiting in my inbox last week with content worth sharing from Robert Godfrey, the Rockland Astronomy Club’s own Barlow Bob (why don’t we have one of those? How about a Bino Brady? Recollimation Ray? Spotting Scope Stu?). A few reading this might know that Rockland is the host of NEAF, the NorthEast Astronomy Forum, where good amateur astronomers everywhere can exercise some purchasing power (or fiscal irresponsibility, depending on how far overboard they go) and listen to lectures from the gamut of stellar speakers, from astrophotographers to astronauts. Last year Ray came back with several photographs I posted in the May message. This year I received a link to a number of photos straight from the Rockland source.

In keeping with the solar observing thread from above, I direct you to Barlow Bob’s slideshow of daytime observing festivities at the Rockland Community College during NEAF. I originally had no idea what the security guard was doing in uniform patrolling the observers, but then it hit me. Here’s a group that spends its nights outside and its days recovering. Given how little Sun they get with their scopes, someone must have guessed the whole lot of’em would be overcome with Vitamin D and go crazy from the heat.

Any members that made it to NEAF’08 with stories to tell do send them off for a posting in the July message!

NEAF at Rockland Community College. From www.google.com. Click for a larger view.

Space is the place,
Damian Allis, Ph.D.
sas@somewhereville.com

Links Used Above (Subject To Web Changes)

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Summer
www.syracuse-astro.org/observatory.html
phoenix.lpl.arizona.edu/index.php
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_Scout_Program
www.nasa.gov
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earth
mars.jpl.nasa.gov/mro
apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap080621.html
www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080622001541.htm
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organic_compound
www.boston.com/bigpicture/2008/06/martian_skies.html
www.boston.com
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milky_Way
www.syracuse-astro.org/index_marchapril2008.html
www.usyd.edu.au
www.usyd.edu.au/news/84.html?newsstoryid=2163
www.spitzer.caltech.edu
apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap080606.html
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sagittarius_Arm
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sagittarius_%28constellation%29
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galactic_longitude
www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2008/06/the-sunspot-mys.html
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sun_spots
www.astro-physics.com/index.htm?products/accessories/solar_acc/astrosolar
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supernova
www.spaceweather.com
rocklandastronomy.com
www.rocklandastronomy.com/neaf.htm
www.syracuse-astro.org/index_june2007.html
mysite.verizon.net/resqx7hr/NEAFSSP/index2.htm
www.sunyrockland.edu
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sun
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitamin_D
www.google.com