Thursday, November 11, 2010

How Far Can We See? (part two)

Now for the exciting conclusion--and the second answer--to Matt's question of last week, which you may recall was:

"Is there a specific star that represents the farthest a person can see with the naked eye?"

Although the Andromeda Galaxy is the farthest object the average person can see with the naked eye, there is a star that is reportedly the most distant that can be seen naked-eye. It's a variable star in the constellation Cassiopeia the Queen, and it has the unromantic name of V762 Cas.

A variable star is a star that periodically brightens and dims. In the case of V762 Cas, it's most likely doing that because it's in a red supergiant phase, and it's begun to swell and shrink. A red supergiant is approaching the end of its life. It has burned up all its hydrogen fuel, and has begun burning other elements in a specific sequence. This causes rather dramatic changes in the star's size, temperature, and "behavior."




Image from Palomar Observatory Sky Survey



V762 Cas lies about 15,000 light years away. As we learned last week, one light year is nearly six trillion miles. Now multiply that by 15,000, take two aspirin, and go lie down.

V762 Cas must be a big honkin' supergiant, if it's that far away and we can still see it, yes? Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to spot V762. It is right on the outer limits of naked-eye accessibility, so I need to try again at a really dark site. Acquiring this sort of faint target, along with a faint target like the Andromeda Galaxy, benefit greatly from an effort to properly dark adapt (see last week's post).

To give it a try yourself, face north and locate the Lazy W asterism of Cassiopeia, which looks like a W or an M, depending on its orientation when you look. Download a free sky map for the month at http://www.skymaps.com/, if you don't know how to locate Cassiopeia.

Now draw an imaginary line between the star at the roof peak of the House asterism of Cepheus--it looks like a child's drawing of a house--and the leftmost star of the Lazy W, if it were oriented as a right-side-up W. V762 lies on that line. The star map below will help you pinpoint its location.


Looking north toward Cassiopeia and Cepheus


If you have success spotting it, please post your results in the Comments. Also, if you can spot it with binoculars or a telescope, let us know that also; I'm curious to know if anyone sees any color in the magnified image. Sometimes color is significantly enhanced with a little magnification.

Good luck to us all!

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