Thursday, December 10, 2009

Whale's Tail

Note: There will be no December 17 post. Enjoy this post or browse my older posts. I'll be back with a new post on December 24.

The brightest star in the autumn constellation Cetus the Whale is known by two traditional names: Deneb Kaitos (DENN-ebb KYE-tohs) and Diphda (DIFF-duh). The former is Arabic for whale’s tail, as the star marks the position of the celestial sea creature’s tail. The latter is more commonly used by amateur observers, and it’s from an Arabic phrase meaning second frog. The “first frog” is the nearby--and noticeably brighter--star Fomalhaut in Piscis Australis the Southern Fish.

Thar she blows!

1) About an hour after your local sunset time, face south. If you don’t know the cardinal directions at your location and you don’t have a compass, make note of where the sun sets on the horizon. That spot is approximately west. Stand with your right shoulder to the west, and you’ll be facing approximately south.

Looking south to the Great Square and Cetus
Star maps created with
Your Sky

2) First, locate the Great Square asterism (star pattern) in Pegasus, high in the southern sky, on or near the meridian.

3) Now, let’s starhop. Using the two easternmost stars in the Square as pointers, draw an imaginary line between them and extend it towards the southern horizon. Traveling a little more than twice the distance between the two pointer stars, you’ll come to the bright star Diphda.

Can you discern a golden hue in the star’s light? Diphda is an orange giant star, nearly 150 times as luminous as our Sun. Of course, from our perspective nearly 100 light years away, it’s just another twinkle light in the autumn night sky. After all, one light year is nearly six trillion miles! So we can be forgiven if we think our Sun has more star power.

4) Reacquaint yourself with the “first frog,” Fomalhaut, to compare it to Diphda in color and brightness. Use the two westernmost stars in the Great Square as pointers this time. Draw an imaginary line between them and extend it towards the southern horizon. Traveling a little more than three times the distance between the two pointer stars, you’ll come to bright Fomalhaut, which will be closer to the southern horizon than Diphda.

Since Fomalhaut is a white star, try comparing the two, which may enhance Diphda’s subtle golden color. Fomalhaut’s brightness as seen from Earth, also known as apparent magnitude, is about two and a half times greater than Diphda’s, so you should discern a difference.

Astronomy Essential: The Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy.

Our home galaxy was first determined to be a pinwheel-shaped spiral galaxy by radio astronomers in the 1950s, who began the on-going process of creating detailed maps of our galaxy’s structure. The curved “arms” of spiral galaxies--which radiate out from a dense galactic core--are regions of active star formation, which is why they are detectable in a variety of wavelengths and able to be mapped.

In 2005, new surveys of the galaxy in infrared light--conducted with the Spitzer Space Telescope--revealed a dense, bar-like congregation of stars cutting across the galaxy’s center. Extraterrestrial observers in other galaxies, positioned so as to have a face-on telescopic view of the Milky Way, would immediately recognize it as a barred spiral type.