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January 2014: Octastic

January 2014

In the show this time, we talk to Dr Victor Debattista about the the evolution of spiral galaxies, Stuart rounds up the latest news and we find out what we can see in the January night sky from Ian Morison and John Field. Meanwhile, we completely forget that it's the Jodcast's eighth birthday.

The News

In the news this month: a black hole in a black hole's clothing.

Interview with Dr Victor Debattista

Dr Victor Debattista is a Reader in Astrophysics at the University of Central Lancashire. He specialises in using computers to simulate the dynamics of disc galaxies, including our own Milky Way, with the goal of understanding how disc galaxies form and evolve over time. He discusses his simulations of the Milky Way, with particular emphasis on the phenomenon of 'stellar migration', and describes the many challenges in running these simulations. He also talks about his anticipation of the chance to compare his simulations to the results from the recently launched Gaia satellite.

The Night Sky

Northern Hemisphere

Ian Morison tells us what we can see in the northern hemisphere night sky during January 2014.

Pegasus and Andromeda are setting in the west in the evening, with the nearby galaxies of Andromeda and Triangulum visible under a dark sky. Orion the Hunter looms large in the south, with the red giant star Betelgeuse to his upper left and the blue giant Rigel to his lower right. Between them, the Belt of three stars is above the Sword, which contains the spectacular Orion Nebula. The Belt points down towards Sirius, or Alpha Canis Majoris, the brightest star after the Sun to observers on Earth. Following the Belt the other way leads to Taurus the Bull, wherein lie the beautiful Hyades and Pleiades Clusters. The orange-coloured star Aldebaran appears to be among the Hyades, but is actually closer to us. Above Orion are Gemini, the host of Jupiter this month, and Auriga, containing the bright yellow star Capella. Perseus and Cassiopeia are nearby, with the Perseus Double Cluster among the treasures to be found along the Milky Way that runs between them. Leo rises in the east as the evening wears on, followed by the planets Mars and Saturn in the early hours of the morning.

The Planets


Southern Hemisphere

John Field from the Carter Observatory in New Zealand speaks about the southern hemisphere night sky during January 2014.

Orion, Canis Manor and Taurus dominate the northern sky after sunset. The planet Jupiter is nearby in Gemini, moving westward (retrograde) relative to the stars. Castor and Pollux, the brightest stars in Gemini, are low in the north-east in the evening and represent the heads of the Heavenly Twins. Castor, the lower of the two, is a multiple star system with a combined magnitude of +1.6 whose two brightest components can be split using a medium-sized telescope. Pollux, a red giant star in the latter stages of its life, is brighter at magnitude +1.1. The open star cluster M35 resides near the star Eta Geminorum, close to Taurus. It can be seen with the naked eye, while binoculars or a small telescope reveal more of its population of some 500 stars. Taurus, in the north, is marked by a V-shape of three stars, representing the head and horns of the Bull. The red giant star Aldebaran is the Bull's Eye. The Pleiades star cluster, on the back of Taurus, is visible to the west of the head.

Orion is between Taurus and Gemini, a Hunter standing upside-down to Southern Hemisphere observers. Commonly known as the Pot in New Zealand, it plays host to the Orion Nebula in the middle of the Sword just below his Belt. This star-forming region looks like a fuzzy star to the unaided eye, or a bat-shaped cloud in binoculars or a small telescope. A telescope of 100 millimetres or more in aperture reveals stars within and around the nebula, including a tight group of four stars called the Trapezium, the brightest of which illuminates the surrounding cloud with ultra-violet radiation. Orion's left foot is the blue giant star Rigel, which is some 18 times more massive than our own Sun.

The Pleiades, the head of Taurus and the Belt and Sword of Orion make up a great Waka, or canoe, to some Māori along the east coast of Aoteroa (New Zealand). In this canoe, called Te Waka o Tamarereti, the mythical figure of Tamarereti sailed across the night sky and placed the stars into the heavens, leaving a wake in the form of the Milky Way. The constellations of Canis Major and Canis Minor are the hunting dogs of Orion, following him through the sky. The larger dog's collar is marked by Sirius, the brightest night-time star. The smaller dog's tail is the bright star Procyon. Canopus, the next-brightest star after Sirius, is almost overhead in the evening.

The planets

Odds and Ends

The Gaia spacecraft was launched by the European Space Agency on 19 December. This spacecraft will fly to L2 (a location where the gravitational forces from the Earth and Sun equal the centripetal force needed to keep an object in orbit around the Sun) and will operate for five years. During that time, Gaia will perform measurements of the positions, motions, brightness, and spectra of 1% of the 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, giving us a better map of our galaxy than ever before.

Astronauts performed several spacewalks on the International Space Station (ISS) this month. As well as fixing a faulty ammonia coolant pump, they installed a pair of cameras called UrtheCast, which will provide near-live images of the Earth's surface as the ISS flies over it. After this episode of the Jodcast was recorded, NASA reported that the cameras did not initially function and were in the process of being fixed.


Jodcast listener Christine Brooks sent us the following poem, entitled 'Birth':

I look above to velvet sky amid the Winter night,
Orion rising through the dark, Rigel blue and bright.
I see Hunter's sword where misty birthing stars shine clear,
And glowering Betelgeuse, dimly red, marks the dark months of the year.

In aged bloated body, the giant's embers glowing low,
Self devoured, consumed within, ashes choking now,
The time will come, the spark will fade, pressures no more to be borne,
And the giant will blaze in his final incandescent morn.

Betelgeuse awaits the day his fires dim and die,
When he will burst his iron heart in his final fiery cry,
The Red Hand of the Hunter will shed his sundered flesh,
In a divine wind suicidal, to nurse his children's creche.

The shattering of his death throes will seed all coming things,
Tin, silver and nitrogen, and gold, the gift of kings,
Oxygen, uranium, all these he will give,
And carbon darkly bright, that his children's childer might live.

The Hunter's sword in spangled sky shines with birthclouds bright,
Full circle round the story comes in gleam of new starlight.
"Fiat Lux" says the old tale, but the wonder strikes me through,
When from my garden step, at my own back door, I see the birthing of the new.

The new stars gleam like diamond dust studded in dusky swirl,
And shimmering vapours shroud the stars in glowing, glimmering pearl.
We live in a universe of marvels, all there for anyone to find,
Needing only open eyes and ears, and more, an open mind.

They say we are born of ashes. They say we go to dust.
But they never said how this came to be. It irks me and thus,
This night I leave the party, to stand amid icy blast,
The sound of Jingle Bells and Silent Night from the indoors drifting past.

I watch the skies through lucid air, and the birthing stars proclaim
The cyclic story, creation's glory and how the death of others became,
The birth of the new, the start of all. Creation's children are us.
Ashes to ashes? But what ashes! We are all born of stardust.

Show Credits

News:Stuart Harper
Interview:Dr Victor Debattista and Indy Leclercq
Night sky:Ian Morison and John Field
Presenters:George Bendo and Mark Purver
Editors:Mark Purver, George Bendo and Stuart Harper
Segment Voice:Iain McDonald
Website:Mark Purver and Stuart Lowe
Producer:Mark Purver
Cover art:The Gaia telescope's Deployable Sunshield Assembly being tested at the Centre Spatial Guyanais in French Guiana. CREDIT: ESA/M. Pedoussaut

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