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February 2009: It's full of stars

February 2009

In this episode we find out about observations of regions of massive star formation from Dr Steve Longmore, hear about a chance to vote on what the Hubble Space Telescope will observe next, we get the latest news and find out what to see in the night sky during February.

The News

In the news this month:


The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Submillimeter Array (SMA) is an 8-element radio interferometer located atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii and is above most of the water vapour in the atmosphere. The array observes at wavelengths 600-1000 times longer than the light we see with our eyes. This lets us see light from very cold gas and dust in the universe.

Steve Longmore has been using the SMA to observe regions in space where massive stars are forming. Massive stars dominate the light output of galaxies that are forming stars but as they are so rare and short-lived they are difficult to find and study. They are formed in very massive, cold, dense, molecular clouds composed mostly of molecular hydrogen. Given the conditions of these giant molecular clouds, Steve is trying to work out how many stars of different mass will come out.

Hubble - You Decide

The Hubble Space Telescope is allowing people around the world to vote on the next observation target. In true Oscar style the nominations are:

The close for votes is March 1st with the image released during the 100 Hours of Astronomy global event (April 2-5). Get voting.

The Night Sky

Ian Morison tells us what we can see in the night sky during February 2009.

Northern Hemisphere

High in the south is the constellation of Orion the Hunter with a line of three stars making up his belt. The upper left hand star of Orion is Betelgeuse - a red supergiant - and at the lower right is Rigel a blue supergiant. Towards the east of Orion is a fairly blank patch of sky. The first constellation is Monoceros which doesn't really have much visible by the unaided eye. However it does contain the Rosette nebula and is probably the location of the nearest stellar mass black hole. Further east and north you will see Procyon in Canis Minor and beyond that is Cancer. Although Cancer doesn't contain much to see by eye, binoculars show the very nice Beehive Cluster (M44). Continuing on we come to Leo.

Venus cannot be missed at magnitude -4.5 after sunset. Saturn is lying below the main stars of Leo. All of the other classical planets have been sneaking around behind the Sun and are just about becoming visible before dawn.


Southern Hemisphere

Over Christmas Ian was in New Zealand and got to see a wonderful part of the southern sky containing Vela and Carina down to Crux - the southern Cross - and Centaurus. One of the brightest stars in that region is Alpha Centauri. Alpha Centauri is actually a triple system, one of which is Proxima Centauri - the nearest star to the Sun. Up to the left of Alpha Centauri you'll see Beta Centauri. Alpha Centauri is just over 4 light years away but Beta Centauri is over 100 times further away so it must be inherently very bright. Alpha and Beta Cenaturi are the pointers that can be used to find Crux - the Southern Cross. Just to its lower left is a prominent dark region named The Coalsack. It's a dense region of dust and gas about 2000 light years from us. As you move up along the Milky Way - towards Carina - is the False Cross. Up to the right of the right-hand star of the False Cross is a fuzzy region called C96 (NGC 2516). Below the False Cross towards Crux is the Carina Nebula. It's a fantastic region to observe in detail and contains a star - Eta Carina - which is probably the next star that will explode as a supernova near the Earth.

Ian recommends a couple of books for observing in the southern hemisphere:

For more information about the night sky check out Ian's Night Sky pages for February 2009.

Odds and ends

Members of the Jodcast will be at the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics stand at AstroFest 2009 on February 6-7 so, if you're there, drop by and say hello.

Show Credits

News:Megan Argo
Interview:Dr Steven Longmore and Stuart Lowe
Night sky this month:Ian Morison
Presenters:Roy Smits and Stuart Lowe
Editor:Stuart Lowe
Intro script:David Ault
Intro editor:Fiona Thraille
Maser:David Maciver
Spengler:Tom Stitzer
Stantz:Bill Young
Venkman:Shane Harris
Segment voice:Danny Wong-McSweeney
Website:Stuart Lowe
Cover art:Star trails seen over the Submillimeter Array. Credit: Nimesh Patel

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