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March 2015: Bold

March 2015

In the show this time, we talk to Dr. Rowan Smith about star formation in the early and recent universe, Ian rounds up the latest news, and we find out what we can see in the March night sky from Ian Morison and Claire Bretherton.

The News

In the news this month, solar system buzzed by dwarf star, BICEP2 bubble bursts and Ceres shows some mysterious spots.

Interview with Dr. Rowan Smith

Dr Rowan Smith has just started working at the University of Manchester and focuses on theoretical star formation. She talks to us about how she creates simulations of the formation process, and will be looking to compare these with real data to test if they are correct. Rowan explains how early stars differ from those born more recently and the contrasting initial conditions between them. She also delves into the physics of how star formation begins, expanding on how a suitable environment is created for stars to be born and the shape that such an environment takes.

The Night Sky

Northern Hemisphere

Ian Morison tells us what we can see in the northern hemisphere night sky during March 2015.

Orion, Taurus, Gemini and Canis Major are setting in the west in the evening. Gemini is the highest of these, with its bright stars Castor and Pollux representing the Heavenly Twins. Further east is Cancer, whose Beehive Cluster can be seen with binoculars and which is currently home to the planet Jupiter. Further over still is Leo the Lion, with its bright star Regulus. Bo”tes, containing the star Arcturus, is rising in the east. The Plough, an asterism within Ursa Major, is high overhead, its back two stars, Merak and Dubhe, pointing towards Polaris, the North Star. Capella, the yellow star in Auriga, is also high in the sky.

The Planets


Southern Hemisphere

Claire Bretherton from the Carter Observatory in New Zealand speaks about the southern hemisphere night sky during March 2015.

The evenings are drawing in as the autumnal equinox passes on the 21st. The summer constellations of Canis Major, Orion and Taurus are in the north-western evening sky. The brightest star in the night sky, Sirius - Takurua to Māori - is almost overhead, with Rigel and Betelgeuse below. Between them is Orion's Belt, three stars that are known as Tautoru in New Zealand. It points down through the head of Taurus the Bull, which contains the Orange star Aldebaran as the Bull's Eye. This V-shape also hosts the Hyades Cluster. For observers with binoculars or a telescope, over 100 stars brighter than 9th magnitude can be seen. Below the V and near the horizon is the Pleiades Cluster, representing the half-sisters of the Hyades in Greek mythology. Called Matariki in New Zealand, their first pre-dawn rising each June marks the Māori New Year.

The second-brightest night-time star, Canopus, is high in the south-west, with the blue star Achernar slightly below. The two of them form a near-equilateral triangle with the south celestial pole, around which the sky appears to rotate. Although this point lacks a nearby bright star, the constellation of Crux (the Southern Cross) helps to locate it. High in the south-east in the evening, Crux is accompanied by the Pointer Stars, Alpha and Beta Centauri. To find the pole, point one hand at Gamma Crucis, the star at the short end of the Cross, point the other hand at Achernar and then bring the two hands together in the middle. This should point you south.

The two dwarf galaxies known as the Magellanic Clouds are visible to the naked eye as two fuzzy patches near to the south celestial pole. Each contains billions of stars, and the Large Magellanic Cloud is the higher of the two. Binoculars or a small telescope can pick out some of its star clusters as individual patches of light within it. A bridge of gas connects it to the Small Magellanic Cloud, demonstrating tidal interaction between the two. It is easiest to spot them around New Moon on the 20th, when they are high in the south after dark.

The Planets

Odds and Ends

Leonard Nimoy passed away on 27 February at the age of 83. While Nimoy was best known for his portrayal of Spock on Star Trek, he also narrated science-related videos such as the 2007 NASA video on the Dawn Mission and the short documentary The Once and Future Griffith Observatory on the history of Griffiths Observatory. He also donated the funds for the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater at Griffiths Observatory, and he was actively involved in promoting science and space exploration. In the 1970s, the influence of Star Trek was so strong that a write-in campaign to NASA prompted the organization to name the first prototype Space Shuttle Enterprise after the spacecraft in Star Trek, and many of the cast members form Star Trek, including Nimoy, appeared at early promotional events for the shuttle program. Many astronauts, scientists, and engineers have cited Star Trek and Nimoy as inspirations for why they became involved in space science. More information on Leonard Nimoy's influence on science can be found in the article, the statement from NASA, and the Washington Post blog post on his passing.

Astronomers announce the discovery of the brightest quasar yet discovered. It has a luminosity of 420 trillion Suns, and the supermassive black hole that powers it is estimated to have a mass of 12 billion solar masses. The quasar, designated SDSS J0100+2802, has a redshift of 6.3 which means it formed only 900 million years after the Big Bang. The findings may support ideas that black holes grew faster than their host galaxies in the early universe, and will help astronomers understand how galaxies form and evolve through cosmic time. The findings were published in the journal Nature, and you can read more about the story here.

Buzz Aldrin and two other astronauts testified in front of the U.S. Senate's Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness as to the importance of an American programme to establish a colony on Mars. Aldrin laid out a vision of how to get there by the year 2038, involving the use of a robotic cycler and 'leveraging asteroid rendezvous' to provide a reliable link to and from the Red Planet. All three astronauts spoke for the benefits to humankind of manned missions to Mars, while acknowledging that at current levels of funding, NASA would face a difficult task ahead.

In a somewhat related event, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launched its first dual-satellite payload, delivering two fully electrically driven telecommunications satellites to Earth orbit. The satellites employ electric ion thrusters, accelerating Xenon ions for propulsion. The launch marks a step into commercial viability and widespread use of these engines, which add less weight to the payload at the expense of slower velocities.

Show Credits

News:Ian Harrison
Interview:Dr. Rowan Smith and Josie Peters
Night sky:Ian Morison and Claire Bretherton
Presenters:George Bendo, Indy Leclercq and Hannah Stacey
Editors:Adam Avison, Monique Henson, Mark Purver and Charlie Walker
Segment Voice:Tess Jaffe
Website:Indy Leclercq and Stuart Lowe
Producer:Indy Leclercq
Cover art:An artist's impression of the most distant quasar yet discovered, at a similar distance to SDSS J0100+2802, the brightest distant quasar found so far CREDIT: ESO/M.Kornmesser

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