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:

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: .

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

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 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 to find local clubs, events, and more!

2020 CNY STEM Scholarships Available –

Greetings, fellow astrophiles!

The below is just in from the TACNY email list – several scholarships are available from a number of local organizations in the STEM fields. If you know someone of the right age, please forward the links along. If you know someone too young to apply, make a mental note to check back at when they’re of appropriate age!

2020 Scholarship Announcement (PDF)

20202 Scholarship Flyer (PDF)

From the website (bottom):

Before starting the scholarship application, please gather the following information:

  • Your parent/guardian name and email
  • A list of your extracurricular activities, with dates
  • A list of any honors/awards, with dates

You will be asked to complete an essay in 500 words or less that answers the following questions:

  • What makes you tick?
  • Why you are choosing a STEM field?
  • Why is STEM important to the world?
  • How will this scholarship help you become a part of the STEM future?

TACNY Junior Cafe Scientifique: “A Tale Of Ice And Fire: What Bugs And Mud Can Teach Us About The Past”

Saturday, January 18, 2020; 9:30 – 11:00am

Milton J Rubenstein Museum of Science & Technology – Syracuse, NY

Please RSVP to

Speaker: Melissa L. Chipman, PhD; Assistant Professor, Department of Earth Sciences, Syracuse University

Talk Overview: The Arctic is one of the most rapidly changing regions on Earth. Arctic biomes are underlain by permafrost soils, some of which contain large deposits of ice left over from ice sheets that retreated thousands of years ago. As temperatures continue to increase the Arctic, these large ice deposits thaw and form dramatic landslides and thaw slumps, which move massive amounts of sediment around the landscape. In addition, warming temperatures facilitate fires in areas that have not burned for thousands of years. Fires impact soil properties such as albedo, vegetation, and soil temperatures, which may lead to enhanced thaw of these ice deposits. Thus, Arctic change is really a story of ice and fire and how these aspects of the system interact. One of the best ways to anticipate how future warming will impact these processes is investigate how Arctic systems responded to temperature change in the past. Lakes record changes that happen on the surrounding landscape because fires produce charcoal that gets deposited in waterbodies, thaw slumps transfer old glacial sediment into lake basins, and insects that are sensitive to temperatures live in many Arctic lakes. We will explore ways to use these signals in lake-sediment cores to investigate the past and uncover how Arctic ecosystems have responded to changing climate over thousands of years. 

Biography: Dr. Chipman received her bachelor’s degree in Environmental Geosciences from Concord University in West Virginia. She received a M.S in Geology. and a Ph.D. in Ecology from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. She was also a postdoctoral research fellow at Northwestern University and joined the faculty in Earth Sciences at Syracuse University in January 2019. Dr. Chipman has extensive experience investigating Arctic change and has participated in six remote field campaigns in boreal and tundra areas of Alaska and Greenland. She is a National Geographic Explorer and currently has a grant from the National Science Foundation to continue her research into fire and ice disturbance in the Arctic. She has also worked on projects funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and was one of the last EPA STAR fellows. Dr. Chipman was a first-generation college student and the first in her family to attend and graduate high school, and is committed to promoting opportunities for first-generation and unrepresented students in science. She mentored several undergraduate students through independent research projects, and is currently advising two graduate students in her new Arctic Paleoecology and Paleoclimate lab group at Syracuse University.

TACNY Junior Cafe Scientifique

TACNY Junior Cafe Scientifique, a program for middle-school students founded in 2005, features discussions about topics in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in an informal atmosphere and seeks to encourage students to consider careers in these areas. Students must be accompanied by an adult and can explore the MOST at no cost after the event.

Technology Alliance of Central New York

Founded in 1903 as the Technology Club of Syracuse, the nonprofit Technology Alliance of Central New York’s mission is to facilitate community awareness, appreciation, and education of technology; and to collaborate with like-minded organizations across Central New York.

For more information about TACNY, visit

Free Astronomy Magazine – January-February 2020 Issue Available For Reading And Download

The most recent issue of Free Astronomy Magazine (January-February 2020) is available for your reading and downloading pleasure at (click the link to go directly to the issue).

Feature articles this month include:

(1) a great read on the history of the discovery of the (dwarf) planet Pluto

(2) SOFIA confirming the collision of two planets in an old star system

(3) details about the landing site selection of Jezero Crater for Mars 2020 (with an image from the article featured about and downloadable from…PIA23239).

For those wanting a quick look at what the issue has to offer, the Table of Contents is reproduced below.

The web browser-readable version:

Jump right to the PDF download (14 MB): January-February 2020

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 , and find out about missions helping to measure our universe at

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 to find local clubs, events, and more!