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February 2014: Spaghetti

February 2014

In the show this time, we talk to Dr Chris Messenger about gravitational waves, Stuart rounds up the latest news and we find out what we can see in the February night sky from Ian Morison and John Field.

The News

This month in the news: Hurricane Luhman.

Interview with Dr Chris Messenger

We talk to Dr Chris Messnger about detecting Gravitational Waves with LIGO. He tells us about the future prospects of advanced LIGO and the potential imminent detection of Gravitational Waves. He goes on to explain the benefit to science of such a detection.

The Night Sky

Northern Hemisphere

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

Orion the Hunter is just to the west of south in the evening, the three stars of his Belt pointing up towards Taurus the Bull, which contains the Hyades and Pleiades Clusters. Gemini lies above, with the planet Jupiter resident there this month. Following Orion's Belt downwards leads to the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, in Canis Major. If you scan down and left from Sirius, you come to the open cluster M41, which hosts a single red giant star among its blue population. Canis Minor and its bright star, Procyon, are towards the south, while Cancer, home to the Beehive Cluster, is in the south-east. Leo the Lion is rising in the east, with its bright star, Regulus. The Realm of the Galaxies, a rich area of the sky between Leo and Virgo, rises later in the night, looking towards the Virgo Galaxy Cluster. Ursa Major, the Great Bear, is in the north-east, while Auriga and its yellow star, Capella, are above Taurus. Cassiopeia and Perseus are in the north-west, with the Milky Way running between them and the Perseus Double Cluster visible in binoculars.

The Planets


Southern Hemisphere

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

The evening sky is dominated in the north by the planet Jupiter and the constellations of Orion, Canis Major and Taurus. Jupiter, looking like a bright, white star, is in front of the distant stars that form the constellation of Gemini, the Twins. Gemini is one of the constellations through which the Sun moves as seen from the Earth; the path of the Sun across the sky is called the ecliptic, and the constellations along it form the zodiac. To the left of Gemini is an upside down 'V' of stars that forms the head of another zodiacal constellation, Taurus the Bull. The brightest of these stars is the giant, orange-hued Aldebaran, while its younger, fainter companions belong to more a distant cluster called the Hyades. Another star cluster called the Pleiades marks the Bull's back, and can be found to the west of his head. Visible as a compact cluster to the naked eye, they make a fine sight in binoculars.

Gemini and Cancer are two of the other zodiacal constellations in the summer sky. The bright stars Castor and Pollux mark the heads of the Twins, and can found in the north after sunset. Gemini lies on the eastern edge of the Milky Way, and faint and distant stars can be seen around the two main stars. Five faint galaxies can be found within 1° of Castor using a large telescope. Pollux is the brighter of the two stars. Near to the star Eta Geminorum is M35, an open star cluster. Under good conditions it can be seen with the unaided eye as a hazy star, while binoculars or a wide-field telescope present an even better view. Cancer the Crab is a fainter constellation of five stars, at the centre of which is a cluster of stars called Praesepe, or the Beehive. Large and bright, it appears as a nebula to the unaided eye, and binoculars reveal individual stars within the cluster. Galileo viewed this cluster with his telescope in 1610, becoming the first human to see it as a group of stars.

Orion the Hunter, an upside-down summer constellation in the southern hemisphere, is due north after sunset. His brightest stars, Rigel, Betelgeuse and Bellatrix, along with the three stars of his Belt, form an easily recognisable pattern. The Orion Nebula can be found in the middle of Orion's Sword, appearing as a fuzzy star to the unaided eye. Binoculars or a small telescope show a bat-shaped cloud, while a telescope of 100 millimetres or more in aperture reveals a number of stars in and around the nebula, including a tight group of four stars called the Trapezium. Above the Belt is Rigel, the brightest star in Orion, which is actually a triple system. To the east are Orion's two hunting dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor. The brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, marks the collar of Canis Major, and the Large Dog is upside-down with his feet in the air. Below Canis Major is Procyon, forming the tail of Canis Minor, while a fainter star to the left marks the Small Dog's front. With binoculars, two lovely sights are visible: just over a third of the way between Sirius and Procyon is a cluster of stars called M50, and halfway along the line from Procyon to Betelgeuse is a rectangular cluster of stars embedded in a faint nebula called the Rosette. Almost overhead in the early evening is the second-brightest star in the night sky, Canopus.

The Planets

Odds and Ends

Although the Herschel Space Observatory stopped performing infrared observations in the spring of last year, scientists are still analysing the data. Last month, the European Space Observatory announced that a group led by Michael Küppers had discovered water vapour around the dwarf planet Ceres using infrared spectra from Herschel. More details can be found here.

At the end of January, something went bang in the nearby starburst galaxy M82. The culprit turned out to be a type Ia supernova, caused by a thermonuclear explosion of a white dwarf, the evolved remains of a fairly normal star. Discovered by Dr Steve Fossey and some of his students at UCL, who were carrying out an assignment on a small telescope at the time, this supernova is the closest of this type for several decades. It is now being observed by large research telescopes across the northern hemisphere, with astronomers hoping to get their closest ever view of this type of explosion.

The renowned physicist Steven Hawking has recently published an online paper (un-peer reviewed) that questions the current definition of black holes. Hawking is attempting to resolve an inconsistency between general relativity and quantum mechanics that occurs at a black hole's 'point of no return', or event horizon. Quantum mechanics calls for a big energy release at the event horizon, creating a 'firewall' of sorts, whereas according to Einstein's general relativity, the event horizon is a wholly unremarkable point in space. Hawking suggests that the event horizon is less important than the 'apparent horizon', which can change over time and eventually disappear if the black hole shrinks enough, thus re-releasing the matter it contains into the universe. It remains to be seen whether Hawking's theories will stand up to peer review.

Show Credits

News:Stuart Harper
Interview:Dr Chris Messenger and Chris Wallis
Night sky:Ian Morison and John Field
Presenters:George Bendo, Megan Argo and Indy Leclercq
Editors:Sally Cooper, Indy Leclercq and Mark Purver
Segment Voice:Iain McDonald
Website:Sally Cooper and Stuart Lowe
Cover art:The supernova in M82. CREDIT: UCL/ULO/Steve Fossey/Ben Cooke/Guy Pollack/Matthew Wilde/Thomas Wright

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