Category Archives: Nasa Night Sky Notes

NASA Night Sky Notes: Betelgeuse And The Crab Nebula: Stellar Death And Rebirth

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting by the Night Sky Network in February, 2020.

By David Prosper

What happens when a star dies? Stargazers are paying close attention to the red giant star Betelgeuse since it recently dimmed in brightness, causing speculation that it may soon end in a brilliant supernova. While it likely won’t explode quite yet, we can preview its fate by observing the nearby Crab Nebula.

Betelgeuse, despite its recent dimming, is still easy to find as the red-hued shoulder star of Orion. A known variable star, Betelgeuse usually competes for the position of the brightest star in Orion with brilliant blue-white Rigel, but recently its brightness has faded to below that of nearby Aldebaran, in Taurus. Betelgeuse is a young star, estimated to be a few million years old, but due to its giant size it leads a fast and furious life. This massive star, known as a supergiant, exhausted the hydrogen fuel in its core and began to fuse helium instead, which caused the outer layers of the star to cool and swell dramatically in size. Betelgeuse is one of the only stars for which we have any kind of detailed surface observations due to its huge size – somewhere between the diameter of the orbits of Mars and Jupiter – and relatively close distance of about 642 light-years. Betelgeuse is also a “runaway star,” with its remarkable speed possibly triggered by merging with a smaller companion star. If that is the case, Betelgeuse may actually have millions of years left! So, Betelgeuse may not explode soon after all; or it might explode tomorrow! We have much more to learn about this intriguing star.

The Crab Nebula (M1) is relatively close to Betelgeuse in the sky, in the nearby constellation of Taurus. Its ghostly, spidery gas clouds result from a massive explosion; a supernova observed by astronomers in 1054! A backyard telescope allows you to see some details, but only advanced telescopes reveal the rapidly spinning neutron star found in its center: the last stellar remnant from that cataclysmic event. These gas clouds were created during the giant star’s violent demise and expand ever outward to enrich the universe with heavy elements like silicon, iron, and nickel. These element-rich clouds are like a cosmic fertilizer, making rocky planets like our own Earth possible. Supernova also send out powerful shock waves that help trigger star formation. In fact, if it wasn’t for a long-ago supernova, our solar system – along with all of us – wouldn’t exist! You can learn much more about the Crab Nebula and its neutron star in a new video from NASA’s Universe of Learning, created from observations by the Great Observatories of Hubble, Chandra, and Spitzer: bit.ly/CrabNebulaVisual

Our last three articles covered the life cycle of stars from observing two neighboring constellations: Orion and Taurus! Our stargazing took us to the ”baby stars” found in the stellar nursery of the Orion Nebula, onwards to the teenage stars of the Pleiades and young adult stars of the Hyades, and ended with dying Betelgeuse and the stellar corpse of the Crab Nebula. Want to know more about the life cycle of stars? Explore stellar evolution with “The Lives of Stars” activity and handout: bit.ly/starlifeanddeath .

 Check out NASA’s most up to date observations of supernova and their remains at nasa.gov

This image of the Crab Nebula combines X-ray observations from Chandra, optical observations from Hubble, and infrared observations from Spitzer to reveal intricate detail. Notice how the violent energy radiates out from the rapidly spinning neutron star in the center of the nebula (also known as a pulsar) and heats up the surrounding gas. More about this incredible “pulsar wind nebula” can be found at bit.ly/Crab3D Credit: NASA, ESA, F. Summers, J. Olmsted, L. Hustak, J. DePasquale and G. Bacon (STScI), N. Wolk (CfA), and R. Hurt (Caltech/IPAC)
Spot Betelgeuse and the Crab Nebula after sunset! A telescope is needed to spot the ghostly Crab.

The Night Sky Network program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!

NASA Night Sky Notes: Spot The Young Stars Of The Hyades And Pleiades

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting by the Night Sky Network in January, 2020.

By David Prosper

Orion is the last of a trio of striking star patterns to rise during the late fall and early winter months, preceded by the diminutive Pleiades and larger Hyades in Taurus. All three are easily spotted rising in the east in early January evenings, and are textbook examples of stars in different stages of development.

As discussed in last month’s Notes, the famous Orion Nebula (M42), found in Orion’s “Sword,” is a celestial nursery full of newly-born “baby stars” and still-incubating “protostars,” surrounded by the gas from which they were born. Next to Orion we find the Hyades, in Taurus, with their distinctive “V’ shape. The Hyades are young but mature stars, hundreds of millions of years old and widely dispersed. Imagine them as “young adult” stars venturing out from their hometown into their new galactic apartments. Bright orange Aldebaran stands out in this group, but is not actually a member; it just happens to be in between us and the Hyades. Traveling from Orion to the Hyades we then find the small, almost dipper-shaped Pleiades star cluster (M45). These are “teenage stars,” younger than the Hyades, but older than the newborn stars of the Orion Nebula. These bright young stars are still relatively close together, but have dispersed their birth cocoon of stellar gas, like teenagers venturing around the neighborhood with friends and wearing their own clothes, but still remaining close to home – for now. Astronomers have studied this trio in great detail in order to learn more about stellar evolution.

Figuring the exact distance of the Pleiades from Earth is an interesting problem in astrometry, the study of the exact positions of stars in space. Knowing their exact distance away is a necessary step in determining many other facts about the Pleiades. The European Space Agency’s Hipparcos satellite determined their distance to about 392 light years away, around 43 light years closer than previous estimates. However, subsequent measurements by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope indicated a distance of 440 light years, much closer to pre-Hipparcos estimates. Then, using a powerful technique called Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI), which combines the power of radio telescopes from around the world, the distance of the Pleiades was calculated to 443 light years. The ESA’s Gaia satellite, a successor to Hipparcos, recently released its first two sets of data, which among other findings show the distance close to the values found by Hubble and VLBI, possibly settling the long-running “Pleiades Controversy” and helping firm up the foundation for follow-up studies about the nature of the stars of the Pleiades.

You can learn more about the Pleiades in the Universe Discovery Guide at bit.ly/UDGMarch , and find out about missions helping to measure our universe at nasa.gov.

Locate Orion rising in the east after sunset to find the Orion Nebula in the “Sword,” below the famous “Belt” of three bright stars. Then, look above Orion to find both the Hyades and the Pleiades. Binoculars will bring out lots of extra stars and details in all three objects, but you can even spot them with your unaided eye!
Close-up of the Pleiades, with the field of view of Hubble’s Fine Guidance Sensors overlaid in the top left, which helped refine the distance to the cluster. The circumference of the field of view of these sensors is roughly the size of the full Moon. (Credit: NASA, ESA and AURA/Caltech)

The Night Sky Network program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!

NASA Night Sky Notes: The Orion Nebula – Window Into A Stellar Nursery

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting by the Night Sky Network in December, 2019.

By David Prosper

Winter begins in December for observers in the Northern Hemisphere, bringing cold nights and the return of one of the most famous constellations to our early evening skies: Orion the Hunter!

Orion is a striking pattern of stars and is one of the few constellations whose pattern is repeated almost unchanged in the star stories of cultures around the world. Below the three bright stars of Orion’s Belt lies his sword, where you can find the famous Orion Nebula, also known as M42. The nebula is visible to our unaided eyes in even moderately light-polluted skies as a fuzzy “star” in the middle of Orion’s Sword. M42 is about 20 light years across, which helps with its visibility since it’s roughly 1,344 light years away! Baby stars, including the famous “Trapezium” cluster, are found inside the nebula’s whirling gas clouds. These gas clouds also hide “protostars” from view: objects in the process of becoming stars, but that have not yet achieved fusion at their core.

The Orion Nebula is a small window into a vastly larger area of star formation centered around the constellation of Orion itself. NASA’s Great Observatories, space telescopes like Hubble, Spitzer, Compton, and Chandra, studied this area in wavelengths we can’t see with our earthbound eyes, revealing the entire constellation alight with star birth, not just the comparatively tiny area of the nebula. Why then can we only see the nebula? M42 contains hot young stars whose stellar winds blew away their cocoons of gas after their “birth,” the moment when they begin to fuse hydrogen into helium. Those gas clouds, which block visible light, were cleared away just enough to give us a peek inside at these young stars. The rest of the complex remains hidden to human eyes, but not to advanced space-based telescopes.

We put telescopes in orbit to get above the interference of our atmosphere, which absorbs many wavelengths of light. Infrared space telescopes, such as Spitzer and the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, detect longer wavelengths of light that allow them to see through the dust clouds in Orion, revealing hidden stars and cloud structures. It’s similar to the infrared goggles firefighters wear to see through smoke from burning buildings and wildfires.

Learn more about how astronomers combine observations made at different wavelengths with the Night Sky Network activity, ‘The Universe in a Different Light,” downloadable from bit.ly/different-light-nsn. You can find more stunning science and images from NASA’s Great Observatories at nasa.gov.

This image from NASA’s Spitzer missions shows Orion in a different light – quite literally! Note the small outline of the Orion Nebula region in the visible light image on the left, versus the massive amount of activity shown in the infrared image of the same region on the right. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/IRAS /H. McCallon. From bit.ly/SpitzerOrion

The Night Sky Network program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!