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January 2012: Now We Are Six

January 2012

In our sixth birthday show, we talk to Professor Chris Collins about galaxy formation and we find out about molecules in space from Dr Serena Viti. Megan rounds up the latest news and we hear what we can see in the January night sky from Ian Morison and John Field.

The News

In the news this month:

Interview with Prof. Chris Collins

Melanie talks to Prof. Chris Collins from Liverpool John Moores University, who discusses testing galaxy formation models using the most massive galaxies. These models are mostly based on how structure in the Universe forms, and use massive particles and gravitational perturbations and, in the more complicated cases, gas dynamics. The evolution of structure is then followed through cosmic time. Using XMM-Newton X-ray observations of galaxy clusters, Prof. Collins discusses discrepancies between what is expected from the models and what is actually observed in the Universe.

Interview with Dr Serena Viti

George interviews Dr Serena Viti from University College London, who talks about her interests in molecules in space and how they can be used to understand everything from protostars to interstellar magnetic fields to very distant galaxies.

The Night Sky

Northern Hemisphere

Ian Morison tells us what we can see in the northern hemisphere night sky during January 2012.

There is a lovely sky to start the new year off with. Orion the Hunter is due south in the evening. The three stars of his Belt point down and to the left towards the bright star Sirius in Canis Major. Up to the right we come to Taurus the Bull and the little group of stars called the Hyades, which has an interloper, Aldebaran, a bright orange star that forms the eye of Taurus. Carrying on beyond, we come to the group of stars called the Pleiades, an obvious target for a small telescope. Looking at the two bright stars in the centre of Pleiades, one has a triplet of fainter stars beside it and between it and the other there's a double star, one of which is nice and red. Starting with the central star of Orion's Belt, drop down to the Sword where there is the Orion Nebula, a region of star formation. At its heart is a group of four or five very blue stars called the Trapezium. Up to the left of Orion we have Gemini, with Castor above and Pollux below. Down below them is Procyon, the bright star in Canis Minor. Above Orion is Auriga, coming up towards the zenith, with its bright yellowish star called Capella. The Milky Way runs between Orion and Gemini, above Taurus and through Auriga. There are some very nice little star clusters - M36, M37 and M38 - which can be picked out with binoculars and are nice to observe with a telescope. As the evening goes on, Leo the Lion rises in the south east.

The Planets


Southern Hemisphere

John Field from the Carter Observatory in New Zealand speaks about the southern hemisphere night sky during January 2012.

January finds the planets Venus and Jupiter in the evening sky. Venus is low down in the west, setting about two hours after sunset. Jupiter is higher in the north and will set around midnight. In early January, Jupiter moves from the constellation of Pisces the Fish into the constellation of Aries the Ram. Aries is a faint constellation containing a number of double stars, but larger telescopes are needed to easily observe them.

In sharp contrast to faint Aries, Orion the Hunter has a large number of bright stars and sights for binoculars and any size of telescope. Orion's brightest stars, Rigel, Betelgeuse and Bellatrix - along with the three stars of his Belt - form an easily seen pattern in the evening sky. Well placed for viewing is the Orion Nebula, which can be found in the middle of Orion's Sword. To the unaided eye, this nebula appears to be a fuzzy star. If you have binoculars or a small telescope, you will see a bat-shaped cloud. A telescope with an aperture of 100mm or more will reveal a number of stars in and around the nebula, including a tight group of four stars called the Trapezium. Marking Orion's left foot is Rigel, the brightest star in Orion, shining at magnitude +0.18.

Running from a star nearby to Rigel and across the sky to Achernar is the long and rambling constellation of Eridanus, the River. Epsilon Eridani is a magnitude +3.7 dwarf star. Theta Eridani (Acamar) is a pair of blue-white stars of magnitudes +3.2 and +4.4, separated by just over 8", that are easily seen through a telescope. 32 Eridani is a beautiful double star for small telescopes, consisting of a magnitude +5 yellow star and a blue-green magnitude +6.3 companion separated by just under 7". 40 Eridani is a remarkable triple star system: small telescopes will reveal a magnitude +4.4 yellow star; nearby is a widely separated magnitude +9.6 white dwarf companion, the most easily seen white dwarf star in the sky. Large telescopes will show that the white dwarf has an 11th magnitude red dwarf companion. Also along the river is NGC 1535, a small planetary nebula appearing in a nice field of scattered stars.

Returning to the northern sky, we find Taurus, along with the Pleiades (Matariki to the Māori) to the west of Orion, which sets around midnight. To the east of Orion are his two hunting companions Canis Major, the Larger Dog, and Canis Minor, the Smaller Dog. The brightest star in our night sky, Sirius, marks the collar of Canis Major.

For those staying out later, Mars rises after midnight in the constellation of Leo. It appears as a reddish coloured star and is brighter than any of the other nearby stars. Later, Saturn will rise in Virgo, its rings slowly tilting towards us, which will lead to better views of them later this year.

We have a visitor to the inner Solar System that may be visible in early January. Comet Lovejoy made a close approach to the Sun on December 15th 2011, and by late December it was visible throughout the night in the south. This comet may now have dropped in brightness as it moves away from the Sun, and might only be visible through telescopes.

Odds and Ends

The Russian Mars probe, Phobos-Grunt (supposed to land on Phobos, collect rock samples and return them), which got stuck in Earth's orbit in November after failing to fire its engines, is going to fall to back to Earth. The probe's mass when it was launched was 13 tonnes and experts expect most of the probe to burn up upon re-entry. However, approximately 200kg are expected to make it to the surface in 20-30 pieces and it is likely that these will end up in the ocean. The date of re-entry is not well known, but is expected to be around January 9th, plus or minus 5.5 days - but some forecasters are predicting re-entry as early as January 1st.

NASA has announced that SpaceX will attempt to dock an unmanned Dragon Capsule with the International Space Station in February. The launch date has been set for February 7th, and will mark the first launch of an American spacecraft to the ISS since the retirement of the space shuttles in July 2011.

The newest telescope to be built at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile, the VLT Survey Telescope, has captured a spectacularly detailed wide-field image of the nearby galaxy NGC 253. This galaxy is one of the closest examples of a starburst galaxy: a galaxy going through a period of very rapid star formation. It's well worth having a play with the "zoomable version" of the image to see the galaxy up close.

Further media attention centred on two more Earth-sized exoplanets discovered by the Kepler mission. Once again, they are not entirely Earth-like. A number of exoplanet apps are available which notify the owner of new discoveries via their mobile phone, and even give information about the properties of each planet.

Show Credits

News:Megan Argo
Interview:Prof. Chris Collins and Melanie Gendre
Interview:Dr Serena Viti and George Bendo
Night sky:Ian Morison and John Field
Presenters:Megan Argo, David Ault, Jen Gupta, Libby Jones, Mark Purver and Christina Smith
Editors:Mark Purver, Claire Bretherton, Melanie Gendre, Jen Gupta and Dan Thornton
Segment Voice:Kerry Hebden
Website:Mark Purver and Stuart Lowe
Producer:Mark Purver
Cover art:An image of nearby starburst galaxy NGC 253 from ESO's new VLT Survey Telescope at Paranal Observatory, Chile. CREDIT:: ESO/INAF-VST/A. Grado/L. Limatola/INAF-Capodimonte Observatory

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