When an Astrophysicist Needs a Star Map

Stars of the Northern Hemisphere, Ashland Astronomy Studio
Stars of the Northern Hemisphere, Ashland Astronomy Studio

Imagine the scene: I’m having a romantic walk on a clear night with my wife along the beach. We see a brief flash of light and Deb says, “Hey, a meteor!” I then proceed to tell her that most meteors are actually no bigger than a grain of sand and they originate from comets, even though she already knew that. Feeling quite chuffed with myself that I was able to describe a nugget of atmospheric dynamics in 2 minutes, Deb then points up again and says, “There’s Orion. What constellation is that one?”

“Um. I have no idea,” I reply, feeling less smug. “I know how those things work, but I don’t know what they look like.”

I don’t own a telescope (yet) and I only took one course in university on practical astronomy, everything else was astrophysics. So the sad thing is that I know how stars work — from the nuclear fusion in their core to coronal dynamics (the latter of which I did my PhD in) — but if anyone asked me to point out a constellation or the location of a star… I wouldn’t have a clue.

Sure, there are the old favorites, like Orion, the Big Dipper (or Plough) and bright Polaris, but my expertise in night sky viewing is pretty limited. Although I’d usually refer any astronomy-related questions to BBC astronomy presenter (and Discovery News writer) Mark Thompson, I’d love to learn more. So, firstly, I needed a star chart.

Luckily, a few weeks ago, I received a random email from Erik Anderson from Ashland Astronomy Studio asking whether I’d like a copy of his company’s new star map poster. Being eager to boost my pitiful knowledge of the constellations, I jumped at the chance. Soon after, my poster arrived through the post.

Now this is where things got really cool. Although Erik had titled his email to me “Star Map with Exoplanet Hosts,” I’d forgotten about the “exoplanet” part. On the clear, yet detailed Ashland star map, all the major constellations and stars are plotted, along with the time of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere) they can be seen. But also, there’s a symbol representing the hundreds of stars that are known to have exoplanetary systems orbiting.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been referring to my newly-framed star map, and can now confidently point into the sky, not only identifying the constellations but also some stars that possess exoplanets. Only last night, I pointed up in the general vicinity of the star 61 Virginis (near the blue giant Spica) and said, “That star has 3 worlds orbiting it.”

I’m not sure if Deb was overly impressed with my exoplanet knowledge, but I was happy to be smug again.

Although it’s only a very small part of an astronomer’s tool kit, a star map is essential. Although you can get apps for your iPhone, you can’t beat a poster that isn’t only functional, but also looks very attractive on your office wall.

The very cool Ashland Astronomy Studio Star Map can be purchased from Amazon.

If I Was A TV-Loving Alien, I’d Live In 40 Eridani

tv-shows

16.5 light years away, a revolution in sci-fi television programming is about to explode to life… Yes, it really is that exciting. Almost like a tsunami approaching a peaceful shore, island inhabitants totally unaware of its impending arrival, the triple star system of 40 Eridani is about to be bathed in a very special terrestrial signal…

So why am I getting so excited for this random star system? Well, 15 years ago, the awesome five-season show Babylon 5 aired in the US and the UK. For me, B5 formed a watershed of my love for sci-fi. In fact, you could say I was a teenage Babylonoholic, I couldn’t get enough of it.

Today, I see the superb graphic on Obtuse Goose (after being pointed to Phil’s Bad Astronomy post by Greg “Weird Things” Fish), showing the local star systems to the Solar System and what they are watching.

Watching? Yes.

As we transmit electromagnetic signals over the airwaves for our television viewing pleasure, we’ve also been leaking it into space. As the signal travels at the speed of light, the maximum distance our TV signal would have travelled is about 80 light years (we started leaking in the 1930’s). By that reasoning, our TV shows should have reached Aldebaran by now.

Unfortunately, the aliens of Aldebaran have a rather limited choice of TV shows… at the moment they’re probably putting up with Nazi Germany’s propaganda broadcasts (like in Jodie Foster’s Contact). Things are far more exciting in 40 Eridani… they’re about to get flooded by the first season of Babylon 5! Sure, there’s lots of other things to watch in the expanse of 80 light years, but if I had to choose, I’d be prepping my TV aerial and stocking the fridge in time for 5 years of awesome sci-fi on a world orbiting one of the three 40 Eridani stars…

Source: Obtuse Goose, via Bad Astronomy, via Greg.