Betelgeuse Fading

Something is definitely not right with Orion. For anyone familiar with the sky the constellation just looks wrong with Betelgeuse at half its normal brilliance.

We have long known Betelgeuse is a dying star, in the last stages of its life. Old stars tend to be unstable, changing in brightness. Betelgeuse has always varied a bit, but this is the largest change on record.

The magnitude of Betelgeuse over the past 35 years, data from the AAVSO
The magnitude of Betelgeuse over the past 35 years, data from the AAVSO

It is odd to see such an iconic star change so dramatically, a reminder that not even the stars are permanent.

Orion with a faint Betelgeuse changing the appearance of this familiar constellation
Orion with a faint Betelgeuse changing the appearance of this familiar constellation, photo taken December 29, 2019

The photo tends to flatten the magnitude of stars, the difference is not as obvious. You need to step outside and look for yourself. Orion currently rises late in the evening.

A Waikoloa Star Party

It started simply enough… Donna asked for suggestions, she was looking for activities the Waikoloa Village Association could share with the community. Of course I suggested a star party. Much of our small club lives in the village, this would be an easy and fun event to put together. Al we need is a date and a place.

Star Party!
A local student checks out Cliff’s 24″ telescope, photo by Bernt Grundseth
A date? Sept 23rd would offer a slim crescent Moon, Saturn, and the Milky Way overhead. The 23rd has the added benefit of being a Saturday.

A place? The Waikoloa Stables have ceased being a place with horses. There remains a nice lawn, bathrooms, and a large parking lot. The stables currently hosts a thrift shop and regular community events like the yearly Wiliwili festival.

A plan? Easy… Light refreshments, parking coordination, keiki fire dancers, the local CERT team for safety backup, a sound system, a speaker for the evening, and at least five telescopes for viewing. OK, maybe not so simple.

We can do this.

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Oregon Star Party 2017

Due to lucky happenstance the location for Oregon Star Party, the same location used for decades, was within the path of totality for the 2017 total solar eclipse. This provided an opportunity to both attend the star party again, and to view the eclipse.

An assortment of telescopes wait out the day at oregon Star Party 2017
An assortment of telescopes wait out the day at oregon Star Party 2017
I do enjoy the large star parties, something we do not have on the island. I had attended OSP a few years ago, the eclipse made the opportunity to attend once again very tempting.

Registration for the star party was an issue. Due to the eclipse attendance was going to be very good, so good that registration was closed within two hours of opening! I got the announcement email, then waited until I got out of a meeting to register, only to find out I was too late! I put my name on the waiting list and hoped.

With a month to go I received word that my waiting list position was opened for registration. By this time my family already had plans to camp in the Ochoco Mts. for the eclipse, no reason not to do both!

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Astronomers Prove What Separates True Stars from Wannabes

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

Astronomers have shown what separates real stars from the wannabes. Not in Hollywood, but out in the universe.

“When we look up and see the stars shining at night, we are seeing only part of the story,” said Trent Dupuy of the University of Texas at Austin and a graduate of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “Not everything that could be a star ‘makes it,’ and figuring out why this process sometimes fails is just as important as understanding when it succeeds.”

Dupuy is the lead author of the study and is presenting his research today in a news conference at the semi-annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin.

He and co-author Michael Liu of the University of Hawaii have found that an object must weigh at least 70 times the mass of Jupiter in order to start hydrogen fusion and achieve star-status. If it weighs less, the star does not ignite and becomes a brown dwarf instead.

How did they reach that conclusion? The two studied 31 faint brown dwarf binaries (pairs of these objects that orbit each other) using W. M. Keck Observatory’s laser guide star adaptive optics system (LGS AO) to collect ultra-sharp images of them, and track their orbital motions using high-precision observations.

“We have been working on this since Keck Observatory’s LGS AO first revolutionized ground-based astronomy a decade ago,” said Dupuy. “Keck is the only observatory that has been doing this consistently for over 10 years. That long-running, high-quality data from the laser system is at the core of this project.”

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Dwarf Star 200 Light Years Away Contains Life’s Building Blocks

W. M. Keck Observatory press release

Many scientists believe the Earth was dry when it first formed, and that the building blocks for life on our planet — carbon, nitrogen and water — appeared only later as a result of collisions with other objects in our solar system that had those elements.

Keck in the Dawn
The twin domes of Keck Observatory lit by the first rays of dawn
Today, a UCLA-led team of scientists reports that it has discovered the existence of a white dwarf star whose atmosphere is rich in carbon and nitrogen, as well as in oxygen and hydrogen, the components of water. The white dwarf is approximately 200 light years from Earth and is located in the constellation Boötes.

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Distanced from Reality

On Monday I tuned back into the TMT contested case hearing, it is a soap opera that has become rather addictive over the last few months. I will often keep the video feed up in the corner of my monitor, attempting to pick up the more interesting bits through the day.

Michael Lee
Michael Lee testifies at the TMT contested case hearing Jan 24, 2017
Mr. Lee claims to be a papakilohoku, a star priest, I tuned into his testimony with some interest. As an amateur astronomer who has spent countless nights under the stars observing with hand made telescopes, or simply my unaided eyes, I am very familiar with the sky. I hoped he would relate some interesting Hawaiian sky lore while on the stand, a new legend or two. What I heard instead was a mangled version of astronomy that would embarrass any ancient Polynesian navigator.

Mr. Michael Lee was offered as a witness by Harry Fergerstrom, one of the more extreme participants in the ongoing contested case hearing. It is no surprise that this witness would espouse some of the more interesting claims made against the TMT project. I expected some wild claims, I was surprised at just how wild.

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