a little east of reality

Sunday, August 26, 2007


Last night I took Keyboard Kid along to a stargazing night held by the Canberra Astronomical Society out on Black Mountain Peninsula. There were about twelve telescopes set up focused on various treats particularly nice to see in the August sky. Here's a rundown of what we saw. These photos are taken from the internet, and I have to say that in spite of the fact that some of these show more detail than we were able to see, most of what we saw was much more beautiful to see through the telescope, most likely because photo stars don't twinkle. More than that, there's something about the night sky that can't be captured in a photo. The photos are interesting, but seeing it for real is oddly moving.

Alpha Centauri is a triple star system consisting of two main stars, Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B, which form a binary system together, and a much smaller and dimmer red dwarf named Proxima Centauri. We checked out AlphaCen A&B, which to the naked eye look like one star. Last night we were able to split the binary system (view it as at right, as two seperate stars).
The Jewel Box (Kappa Crucis) is an open cluster of about 100 stars in the Southern Cross (a constellation which you North Americans may never have seen, but which is constantly in the Southern sky and so appears on the flags of Australia and New Zealand). In this photo you can see one very yellow star surrounded by bright blue stars. Last night we could see stars that looked red, yellow, blue and green. In case you were wondering, the colour of stars varies according to their temperature, which is also related to their age.

Omega Centauri is a globular cluster of stars seen in the constellation of Centaurus. It orbits the Milky Way and is the largest known globular cluster associated with our galaxy. Unlike other globular clusters, it contains several generations of stars.

Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system and the fifth planet from the sun. It is a gas giant with 39 moons at last count and there are constant massive electrical storms roaming its surface (cool, huh?). Its most prominent features are bands across its latitudes and a great red spot (which is a huge storm). Last night the moon was bright, so Jupiter looked paler than in this photo. We could also see three of its four major moons.

Antares is the brightest star in Scorpius, a zodiac constellation and very easy to find in our winter sky. Antares is a red supergiant which is often mistaken for Mars because it is red even to the naked eye. Certainly I've been wondering if it was Mars for years. :) It's an old and massive star, about 230 times as big as the Sun. Through the telescope it was the prettiest reddish gold. We weren't able to split it but it was beautiful for sure.

The terminator, that line where the light hitting our moon falls away into darkness, is interesting to look at. Because the light is skimming the surface at that point, the Moon's craters are much easier to see. We also looked at the whole moon, which was lumescent and beautiful, but left you a little blind from its brightness for a few minutes after you looked at it.

It was a nice night, and it made me want again to visit the Sydney Observatory with its huge telescope. I've meant to go a couple of times when I was in Sydney, but it's always been cloudy. I think if I lived there I'd go every month, because there's always something interesting to see.

The next sky event is happening on Tuesday night...a full lunar eclipse. Because of the way the Earth's atmosphere refracts the light of the Sun, the moon will not be black, but red instead. We've made lots of comments about the moon 'turning to blood' and I'm having a little 'end of the world as we know it' dinner party out on the balcony. Hopefully it isn't actually a sign of the imminent Apocolypse, or the joke will rather be on us, no? :)

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