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February 2012: Sweet

February 2012

This time around, we talk to Dr Lucie Green about Solar activity and Dr Paul Woods tells us about a sweet molecule in space. Megan rounds up the latest news and we find out what's in the February night sky from Ian Morison and John Field.

The News

In the news this month: January saw the 219th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), termed the 'Superbowl' of astrophysics events. January's highlights included dark matter, exoplanets, black hole burps and star formation.

Interview with Dr Lucie Green

Dr Lucie Green is a Solar physicist at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory. Jen caught up with Lucie to find out what she's been working on since her last appearance on the Jodcast. In this interview, Lucie talks about her work studying coronal mass ejections from the Sun. She explains how these phenomena interact with the Earth's magnetic field to cause the aurorae and talks about some of the telescopes she uses to study the Sun.

Interview with Dr Paul Woods

Dr Paul Woods from University College London talks to us about the formation of simple sugar in space. This molecule was detected in star-forming regions and molecular clouds, and may have accumulated on cold dust grains in the interstellar medium before being evaporated into gas by newborn stars. Larger molecules may be detected in the future, bridging the current observation gap between the simplest molecules and the much larger fullerenes.

The Night Sky

Northern Hemisphere

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

The constellation of Orion takes centre stage with its bright stars, Betelgeuse and Rigel. Orion's Sword contains M42, the Orion Nebula, visible as a hazy glow through binoculars. Sirius, our brightest night-time star, is down and to the left; atmospheric scintillation makes it twinkle colourfully. Above and right of Orion is Taurus the Bull, containing the red star Aldebaran as its eye and the Hyades Cluster, which forms its head. The Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, are nearby. Up and left of Orion is Gemini, containing the Heavenly Twins, Castor and Pollux, while Auriga is towards the zenith with its bright star Capella. The Milky Way runs through Auriga and hosts several open star clusters. Leo the Lion rises in the east later in the evening, above the planet Mars.

The Planets


Southern Hemisphere

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

Three planets are visible in the evening sky: Venus, which sets in the west after sunset, Jupiter, which sets in the north-west around midnight, and Mars, which rises red in the north-east after twilight.

The brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, sits high in the north in the constellation of Canis Major, the Large Dog. Towards the northern horizon is Procyon, the eighth-brightest night-time star, in the constellation of Canis Minor, the Little Dog. The two dogs accompany Orion, the Hunter, while between them is Monoceros, the Unicorn. It contains a number of beautiful stars, including the triple system Beta Monocerotis, which can be separated in a telescope, and the double star Epsilon Monocerotis, with its yellow and blue components. The constellation also offers a number of star clusters as it is on the edge of the Milky Way. Between Sirius and Procyon is M50, also designated NGC 2323, a cluster of about 100 stars that is visible in binoculars. To the north-east of Monoceros is NGC 2232, an irregular open cluster, while the bright, scattered cluster NGC 2244 sits in the centre of the Rosette Nebula. Other interesting clusters include NGC 2261, NGC 2301 and NGC 2264, the last of which is also called the Christmas Tree Cluster due to its shape. It contains the Cone Nebula at its tip, which can be seen through a large telescope. Monoceros is also home to the massive 6th-magnitude binary system Plaskett's Star, which has a mass of around 100 times that of our Sun. The 15th-magnitude star V838 Monocerotis has variable brightness, but is usually very faint. Other well-known variable stars include Beta Persei (Algol), which varies because it is an eclipsing binary system, and Betelgeuse, which swells and cools as it nears the end of its life.

In the south-east is Crux, the Southern Cross, and near to that is Musca, the Fly, with the Coalsack Nebula joining the two. The star Alpha Muscae is a double that can be split with a medium-sized telescope. Theta Muscae is also a double, and the brighter of the two partners is a Wolf-Rayet star, meaning that it ejects a lot of material. Nearby are the globular clusters NGC 4372 and NGC 4833 and the 10th-magnitude planetary nebula NGC 5189, which has an S-shaped appearance.


Odds and Ends

The High Frequency Instrument (HFI) aboard ESA's Planck space telescope concluded its two-and-a-half-year observation of the Cosmic Microwave Background in January. Planck has been mapping "the oldest light in the Universe" all across the sky with unprecedented precision in sensitivity, resolution and the lowest temperature possible. Inevitably, its coolant finally evaporated, ending its useful life. Planck's Low Frequency Instrument, however, will continue observations for the remainder of 2012, with the results of the mission being released shortly thereafter.

Astronomers from the University of Pittsburgh worked out the colour of the Milky Way as seen from the outside, and announced their result at the 219th meeting of the American Astronomical Society. They used observations of other, similar galaxies to avoid the problem of dust, which obscures the view of our own galaxy from the inside. The result was a galaxy declining in star formation rate, neither particularly red nor strikingly blue, with a colour spectrum corresponding to white light from an object at a temperature of about 5000 Kelvin. The team provided an image of a comparable galaxy for reference, and colourfully described the hue of the Milky Way as "being very close to the light seen when looking at spring snow in the early morning, shortly after dawn".

Entries are now being accepted for the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, run by the Royal Museums Greenwich. If you think you can match last year's winners, why not enter?

The Phobos-Grunt spacecraft crash-landed harmlessly into the Pacific Ocean on the 15th of January. Originally bound for a return trip to the Martian moon Phobos, the probe was beset by communication problems and failed to leave Earth orbit, eventually succumbing to atmospheric drag and being destroyed by re-entry and final impact. A piggybacking Chinese Mars orbiter, Yinghuo-1, was lost along with it.

The International Telecommunication Union has decided to delay its verdict on the leap second debate until 2015. The leap second is a time adjustment which has been used 24 times since 1972, and will be used again later this year. Co-ordinated Universal Time (UTC) is measured using precise atomic energy transitions, but our times of day and night get out of sync with this atomic time as the Earth's rotation very gradually slows down. The addition of leap seconds to UTC compensates for this, but can be an annoyance to those who rely on highly accurate timekeeping over long periods, since they must keep track of all the adjustments. Should we abandon the leap second and pledge allegiance to the atomic clock, or should we keep pinning our time standard to the Earth's rotation?

Show Credits

News:Megan Argo and Mel Irfan
Interview:Dr Lucie Green and Jen Gupta
Interview:Dr Paul Woods and Melanie Gendre
Night sky:Ian Morison and John Field
Presenters:Adam Avison, Melanie Gendre, Libby Jones and Mel Irfan
Editors:Melanie Gendre, Megan Argo, Adam Avison, Claire Bretherton and Dan Thornton
Segment Voice:Kerry Hebden
Website:Mark Purver and Stuart Lowe
Producers:Libby Jones and Mark Purver
Cover art:A coronal mass ejection from the Sun, as seen by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. CREDIT: NASA/SDO

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