Tag Archives: David Prosper

NASA Night Sky Notes: Summer Triangle Corner – Vega

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 June, 2020.

By David Prosper and Vivian White

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere and look up during June evenings, you’ll see the brilliant star Vega shining overhead. Did you know that Vega is one of the most studied stars in our skies? As one of the brightest summer stars, Vega has fascinated astronomers for thousands of years.

Vega is the brightest star in the small Greek constellation of Lyra, the harp. It’s also one of the three points of the large “Summer Triangle” asterism, making Vega one of the easiest stars to find for novice stargazers. Ancient humans from 14,000 years ago likely knew Vega for another reason: it was the Earth’s northern pole star! Compare Vega’s current position with that of the current north star, Polaris, and you can see how much the direction of Earth’s axis changes over thousands of years. This slow movement of axial rotation is called precession, and in 12,000 years Vega will return to the northern pole star position. Bright Vega has been observed closely since the beginning of modern astronomy and even helped to set the standard for the current magnitude scale used to categorize the brightness of stars. Polaris and Vega have something else in common, besides being once and future pole stars: their brightness varies over time, making them variable stars. Variable stars’ light can change for many different reasons. Dust, smaller stars, or even planets may block the light we see from the star. Or the star itself might be unstable with active sunspots, expansions, or eruptions changing its brightness. Most stars are so far away that we only record the change in light, and can’t see their surface.

NASA’s TESS satellite has ultra-sensitive light sensors primed to look for the tiny dimming of starlight caused by transits of extrasolar planets. Their sensitivity also allowed TESS to observe much smaller pulsations in a certain type of variable star’s light than previously observed. These observations of Delta Scuti variable stars will help astronomers model their complex interiors and make sense of their distinct, seemingly chaotic, pulsations. This is a major contribution towards the field of astroseismology: the study of stellar interiors via observations of how sound waves “sing” as they travel through stars. The findings may help settle the debate over what kind of variable star Vega is. Find more details on this research, including a sonification demo that lets you “hear” the heartbeat of one of these stars, at: bit.ly/DeltaScutiTESS

Interested in learning more about variable stars? Want to observe their changing brightness? Check out the website for the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) at aavso.org. You can also find the latest news about Vega and other fascinating stars at nasa.gov.

Vega possesses two debris fields, similar to our own solar system’s asteroid and Kuiper belts. Astronomers continue to hunt for planets orbiting Vega, but as of May 2020 none have been confirmed. More info: bit.ly/VegaSystem Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Can you spot Vega? You may need to look straight up to find it, especially if observing after midnight.

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: Become A Citizen Scientist With NASA!

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 May, 2020.

By David Prosper

Ever want to mix in some science with your stargazing, but not sure where to start? NASA hosts a galaxy of citizen science programs that you can join! You’ll find programs perfect for dedicated astronomers and novices alike, from reporting aurora, creating amazing images from real NASA data, searching for asteroids, and scouring data from NASA missions from the comfort of your home. If you can’t get to your favorite stargazing spot, then NASA’s suite of citizen science programs may be just the thing for you.

Jupiter shines brightly in the morning sky this spring. If you’d rather catch up on sleep, or if your local weather isn’t cooperating, all you need is a space telescope – preferably one in orbit around Jupiter! Download raw images straight from the Juno mission, and even process and submit your favorites, on the JunoCam website! You may have seen some incredible images from Juno in the news, but did you know that these images were created by enthusiasts like yourself? Go to their website and download some sample images to start your image processing journey. Who knows where it will take you? Get started at bit.ly/nasajunocam

Interested in hunting for asteroids? Want to collaborate with a team to find them?? The International Astronomical Search Collaboration program matches potential asteroid hunters together into teams throughout the year to help each other dig into astronomical data in order to spot dim objects moving in between photos. If your team discovers a potential asteroid that is later confirmed, you may even get a chance to name it! Join or build a team and search for asteroids at iasc.cosmosearch.org

Want to help discover planets around other star systems? NASA’s TESS mission is orbiting the Earth right now and scanning the sky for planets around other stars. It’s accumulating a giant horde of data, and NASA scientists need your help to sift through it all to find other worlds! You can join Planet Hunters TESS at: planethunters.org

Intrigued by these opportunities? These are just a few of the many ways to participate in NASA citizen science, including observing your local environment with the GLOBE program, reporting aurora with Aurorasaurus, measuring snowpack levels, training software for Mars missions – even counting penguins! Discover more opportunities at science.nasa.gov/citizenscience and join the NASA citizen science Facebook group at facebook.com/groups/Sciencing/ And of course, visit nasa.gov to find the latest discoveries from all the research teams at NASA!

GREAT SOUTHERN JUPITER: Incredible image of Jupiter, submitted to the JunoCam site by Kevin M. Gill. Full Credits : NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill
Light curve of a binary star system containing a pulsating (variable) star, as spotted on Planet Hunters TESS by user mhuten and featured by project scientist Nora Eisner as a “Light Curve of the Week.” Credit: Planet Hunters TESS/NASA/mhuten/Nora Eisner

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: 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!