Albireo is the distinctive double star in the head of the constellation Cygnus. You can find it yourself if you look for the Summer Triangle amid the dusty trail of the Milky Way across the night sky.
The brighter, orange star of Albireo is a K3-class bright giant. That means it’s just a few thousand Kelvins (Celsius degrees plus 273) cooler than the sun. But it’s also larger—70 times the sun’s radius—and that makes it brighter than you would expect.
The blue star, on the other hand, is a B8-class dwarf. It has only about 3.5 times the sun’s radius, although it’s hotter by about 7422 Kelvins.
Neither star in Albireo is particularly unusual. There are doubtless millions, even billions, of other stars similar to each one. But Albireo certainly offers us the most striking contrast. Bright blue and red stars don’t often appear so close together.
But what exactly gives these stars their distinctive colors? Continue reading
Have you ever looked at the sun, and seen something like this?
Now, before you decide to look at it right now and see what you see, it’s my responsibility as an amateur astronomer to remind you of the safety risks. Focusing your eyes on the sun is dangerous—there’s a reason our eyes automatically flinch away.
How dangerous, you ask? Dangerous enough to burn and even scar your retinas, permanently damaging or even destroying your vision.
Yes, I’m serious.
Now, all this is not to turn you off solar observing entirely. There are safe—and cheap—ways to look at the sun, and see its spots.
But what exactly are sunspots?
Ask any climate scientist how we should power our world without fossil fuels, and they’re bound to tell you about wind and solar power.
You might be surprised to know that both of these come from the sun. Solar panels collect the sun’s energy directly, but we wouldn’t even have wind if not for the sun.
Why? Because in order to move, you need energy. And not just you. I’m talking about every speck of material on Planet Earth that shifts an inch. It’s because it has energy.
That energy can come from a lot of places. Earth is still a dynamic world with a hot interior, but it’s not hot enough to sustain all the life and other movement on its surface. A lot of our planet’s energy comes from the sun.
But here’s the big question. How the heck does it get here? Continue reading
We can’t see below the surface of the sun.
That makes sense, really. We can’t see below the surface of the Earth, either—we have to get creative if we want to find out what goes on below the crust.
In the sun’s case, we can’t see below its photosphere because the gases within are so dense, light can’t escape. And we depend on light to see anything.
So…if we can’t see inside the sun, how do we study it? Continue reading
Have you ever heard the ice cream truck?
When I was little, I remember hearing the ice cream truck all the time. Just the sound of the opening notes of “Pop Goes the Weasel” were enough to propel me to the door, where I’d beg my parents to let me go out.
Of course, I didn’t always make it out front in time. But one day, my dad found a way to solve that problem—by actually getting in the car and chasing the ice cream truck.
I remember us driving around the neighborhood, following that white truck around. A few times, it slowed and stopped, but when we stopped too, it kept going again. It took a while for the driver to realize we were following him!
Eventually, we caught it, and had a good laugh over it. But the moral of the story is…have you ever noticed that you can tell if something is moving toward you or away from you, just by if it’s getting louder or quieter?
The same trick works for stars…sort of. Continue reading
Astronomers know that if white light passes through a prism and is bent, it’s separated out into its component colors—the colors of the rainbow.
Astronomers also know that when light interacts with atoms, the building blocks of the universe, the atoms absorb photons of light and reemit them—but in a different direction.
Put these two bits of knowledge together, and astronomers now have everything they need to understand spectra (the plural for spectrum).
A spectrum is something I’ve covered in previous posts. In astronomy, it means the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation spread out so we can analyze them individually. And it’s an astronomer’s most valuable tool.
So, what exactly is a spectrum, and how can we use it to analyze radiation from space and learn more about the universe? Continue reading
Stars are hot.
Really hot. Hot enough to have energy to spare for their planets. If our star wasn’t hot, we couldn’t live on Earth. And our star isn’t even particularly hot for a star. It’s a middle-aged star of low mass, so it’s relatively cool compared to other stars.
You might also notice that stars aren’t all the same color. There are redder stars and bluer stars and more whitish stars.
We know stars are hot. They’re also bright. And they’re different colors. But how does that all translate to radiation—and how can we see it? Continue reading
Everything we know about space comes from radiation.
Now wait just a moment here. That statement explains how astronomy is such a successful field of science—it’s based entirely on the information we can glean from radiation, after all. But how does that make sense?
I mean, it’s one thing to study radiation. It’s quite another thing to study matter, the “stuff” in the universe. How does one have anything to do with the other?
Well…that’s where atoms come in. Radiation does, in fact, have a lot to do with the “stuff” it comes from. And if it weren’t for that basic principle, astronomy as a science wouldn’t work.
Thankfully for astronomers, it does. So what’s the secret, then? What does radiation have to do with matter? Continue reading
You probably recognize this image. You see something like it whenever you look up at the sky. Some days are clearer than others—some, you might even see a completely blue sky—but regardless, you know that this is an image of our atmosphere.
But do you know just how much your atmosphere does for you?
We’ll talk about how it protects you from space rocks later on. For now, consider the energy from our own sun. The sun doesn’t just send visible light our way—it operates in all wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Some of those wavelengths are harmful, like gamma rays, X-rays, and ultraviolet radiation. Others, like infrared radiation, microwaves, and radio waves, are perfectly fine.
The atmosphere doesn’t really pick and choose which wavelengths get through to the surface. It blocks out some radiation it doesn’t need to. At least it protects us from the harmful wavelengths.
But that’s bad news for astronomers, because those wavelengths still contain useful information about the universe.
So how to we capture and analyze them? Continue reading
Whoa…what’s this thing?
It’s a radio telescope, the largest in the world. It’s so huge that a normal support system can’t support its weight. So it’s basically suspended between three mountaintops. It’s 300 m across, which is 1000 feet. It’s huge.
This is the kind of construction endeavor that radio astronomers must try if they want to get much detail from radio waves. The radio wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum are really, really weak. You need huge telescopes to collect enough.
But, as ever, astronomers face the same basic problem: money.
Huge telescopes are expensive. It’s unfortunate for astronomers, but true—just think of the cost of labor of basically burying a whole valley under a radio dish.
So why bother? Continue reading