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February 2011: Bucky

February 2011

In the show this time we find out about cosmology and the cosmic microwave background from Dr Hiranya Peiris and learn about buckyballs in space from Dr Jan Cami. Megan rounds up the news from the 217th AAS meeting and we hear what can be seen in the night sky in February.

The News

The annual meetings of the American Astronomical Society are the largest gatherings of astronomers on the planet, and the presentations cover topics across the whole field of astronomy and astrophysics, including observational results, theoretical studies and simulations. Here are some of the highlights from this year's meeting.

Interview with Dr Hiranya Peiris

Dr Hiranya Peiris (University College London) is a cosmologist studying the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation, which is the vestigial light from the time when the Universe first cooled enough to become transparent. She was previously part of the WMAP collaboration and now works on the Planck mission. In this interview, Hiranya explains what we know about the early Universe, discusses how we study the CMB and talks about being one of the subjects of Max Alexander's Explorers of the Universe project.

Interview with Dr Jan Cami

In summer 2010, Dr Jan Cami (University of Western Ontario) was the lead author on a paper reporting the detection of buckyballs in space. This discovery was reported in the August Jodcast news. In this interview, Jan tells us about the discovery and how it changes our understanding of the Universe.

Buckyballs (also known as fullerenes) are a type of carbon molecule where 60 carbon atoms are arranged in a hollow spherical structure, similar to the shell of a football (or soccer ball). They were found by Jan's team in a planetary nebula and are the largest molecules found in space so far.

The Night Sky

Northern Hemisphere

Ian Morison tells us what we can see in the northern hemisphere night sky during February 2011.

After sunset, Jupiter is setting in the west as Orion the Hunter towers in the southern sky. Moving upwards along Orion’s Belt, you reach the Hyades Cluster and the unconnected star Aldebaran in Taurus the Bull, followed by the Pleiades Cluster. The Moon is just above the Hyades on the 12th of February. The Pleiades are a haze to the naked eye, with a few stars visible in a dark sky, but binoculars or a telescope reveal many more. Beneath Orion’s Belt, the misty Orion Nebula lies in the middle of Orion’s Sword. The dust and gas of this stellar nursery is lit by the bright stars of the Trapezium at its heart. The brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, is to the lower left of the Sword, while to the upper left is the red supergiant Betelgeuse, which might be large enough to swallow Jupiter if it were in the place of our Sun. Further up and left is the constellation of Gemini, with its bright stars Castor and Pollux, the Twins, at the bottom. The open star cluster M35 is to the upper right of Castor, and the Moon will pass over it on the 14th. To the left of Gemini, the sparser constellation of Cancer the Crab contains the open cluster Praesepe, the Beehive Cluster. Hazy to the naked eye, binoculars will reveal a widely spaced group of stars. It straddles the ecliptic, so planets often appear to pass through it as seen from Earth, and on the 16th the Moon will move across it. Leo the Lion rises in the east just after, or, at the end of the month, just before, sunset; Regulus is its brightest star. Ursa Major, the Great Bear, is in the northern sky as usual. Its bright asterism, the Plough, has an apparent double star as the middle of its handle, resolvable with binoculars or even the naked eye. With a telescope, you can see that the brighter of the two is itself a double star.

The Planets


Southern Hemisphere

John Field from the Carter Observatory in New Zealand speaks about the southern night sky during February 2011.

This month sees Jupiter slip lower into our twilight sky, leaving us bereft of planets until Saturn rises in the east around midnight at the start of the month. Orion is almost due north after sunset and will slide towards the western horizon as the month progresses. Taurus, along with the Pleiades or Matariki, will be lower in the west and will set by midnight. The eastern sky is bereft of bright stars until the rising of Scorpius, nearer dawn, after midnight.

Last month we toured some of the sights near Gemini; this month we visit the fainter constellations of Cancer, Leo and Virgo. Cancer appears as a square of stars with the faint star cluster called Praesepe (the Manger). It is more commonly called the Beehive Cluster. The Beehive Cluster is best seen through binoculars or a wide-field telescope at low power when over 40 stars may be visible. The cluster has a similar age and motion to the Hyades Cluster, the V-shape forming the head of Taurus. This implies that they may have formed out of the same cloud of dust and gas.

Being far from the plane of the Milky Way, the following zodiac constellations of Leo and Virgo are prime targets for galaxy hunters. Leo rises in the evening followed by Virgo around midnight. Galaxies come in a variety of shapes, sizes and brightnesses. The two brightest in our southern hemisphere skies are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. These appear as two hazy, cloud-like, patches that are circumpolar from New Zealand. Both are irregular in shape and are about 10% and 5% of the mass of our galaxy respectively. They are both around 170,000 to 200,000 light-years distant. A more challenging galaxy is Centaurus A, which is 4° north of the globular cluster Omega Centauri in the constellation of Centaurus. It can be seen in binoculars as a haze with a dark band running across it. This band has given rise to its nickname of the Hamburger Galaxy. The brightest galaxy visible in the northern hemisphere sky is the Andromeda Galaxy. It is visible low on our northern horizon during our spring here in the southern hemisphere. Andromeda is estimated to be similar in mass to our Milky Way galaxy and around 2.5 million light-years away. The galaxies in Leo and Virgo are much more distant and many times fainter than the other galaxies mentioned. But many are within the range of binoculars and small telescopes on a moonless night well away from city lights. Leo appears as an upside-down sickle in our night sky with the bright star Denebola marking the lions tail. Leo contains many bright galaxies, Messiers 65 and 66 along with 95 and 96. Messier 105 and NGC 3628 form part of the Leo Triplet of galaxies. Rising after Leo is Virgo, the second-largest constellation in the night sky. Virgo is marked by the bright star Spica and a faint, but easily seen, rectangle of stars. A much brighter object in Virgo is the planet Saturn, appearing as a yellow ‘star’ that is similar in brightness to Spica. The Virgo Cluster is a group of up to 2000 galaxies whose center is about 54 million light-years away. It is the part of the larger Local supercluster, of which the galaxy is an outlying member. One of the brighter galaxies in this cluster is the giant elliptical galaxy M87. At Magnitude 9.5, this galaxy is a good target for small telescopes, appearing as a small haze.

Venus and Mercury are in the morning sky with Venus high up below Antares in Scorpious. Mercury is in the morning twilight sky rising about an hour sunrise, but it will move closer to the Sun and by mid-month will be lost in the Sun’s glare.

Odds and Ends

Recently there have been stories and rumours circulating that Betelgeuse is set for an imminent supernova. Betelgeuse is a red supergiant star, easily spotted as the top-right corner star in the constellation Orion. The star has a mass of about 20 times that of the Sun, so that it will eventually end its life in a supernova, leaving a neutron star remnant. If we're lucky this neutron star will manifest itself as a pulsar, and we will observe it from Jodrell Bank. As discussed during the show, when Betelgeuse does explode we can expect its brightness to reach a visual magnitude comparable to the Moon. What is untrue, although it has been suggested by some, is that it will be as bright as the Sun. Nor will it take up a large patch of the sky - it will just be a very bright star. It has even been claimed that Betelgeuse is guaranteed to go supernova in the next year, when in fact it may not happen for 100,000 years or more! So if somebody tells you that Betelgeuse is exploding any day now, and that it will turn night into day, and we will have a "second sun" then take it with a pinch of salt. When they start explaining how it is linked to Mayan prophecies of the end of the world you should already have left the room.

NASA's first solar sail, NanoSail-D successfully deployed on January 20. NASA and have partnered up to run a photo competition to find the best images of NanoSail-D while it remains in orbit. The competition runs until the solar sail re-enters Earth's atmosphere in April or May 2011. Some of the best photos are featured on the NASA Marshall Space Flight Centre Flickr group.

Listener Jason Hill emailed us a link to the xkcd comic Stingray Nebula.

Libby has been to Taiwan recently and got a couple of JodPics at Taipai 101 and the Chiang Kai-shek memorial hall in Taipei. If you have a Jodcast t-shirt and go somewhere interesting, don't forget to take a photo of yourself there in your t-shirt and send it in!

Show Credits

News:Megan Argo
Interview:Dr Hiranya Peiris, Jen Gupta and Mark Purver
Interview:Dr Jan Cami and Jen Gupta
Night sky:Ian Morison and John Field
Presenters:Jen Gupta and Evan Keane
Editors:Jen Gupta, Megan Argo, Claire Bretherton and Mark Purver
Intro/outro:Dara O Briain
Segment voice:Lizette Ramirez
Website:Stuart Lowe, Jen Gupta and Mark Purver
Cover art:Artist's conception of buckyballs coming from a planetary nebula Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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