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  • Rapt in Awe

    My Journey through the Astronomical Year

    Think of this as a "companion text" to this, the main web site. Not required reading, butI hope you'll find it interesting and helpful.

Look North in December 2013 – seeing red yet?

That’s “red” as in garnet, for William Herschel’s Garnet Star, which is particularly well placed for observation in our northern sky in December, though it may take binoculars to bring out the color. OK, I’m getting ahead of the game. First let’s take a look at what the north sky looks like about an hour after sunset on a December evening from mid-northern latitudes.

Click image for larger chart. (Modified screenshot from Stellarium.)

Go here to download a printer-firiendly version of this chart. 

Highest of the circumpolar constellations this month is Cepheus, which I always see as a home plate – and in December, a home plate pointing roughly downward towards Polaris, the North Star. We discussed Cepheus in some detail in September. And if you’ve been following these “Look North” posts for several months you’ve also met the “W” of Cassiopeia, the “Bow” of Perseus (both to the east) and the slithering form of Draco the Dragon to the west, curling its way up, then down, and finally between the Little Dipper and the Bigger Dipper, which now is hugging the northern horizon. But what about that garnet star? Where’s that? High on our chart. Let’s zoom in on the “home plate” of Cepheus.

Click image for larger chart. (Labels added to Stellarium screenshot.)

Go here for a printer friendly version of this chart. 

Now the big question is – will this star really look red? I would say emphatically “yes!” – if seen in a telescope. “Probably,” if seen with binoculars, and “perhaps,” if seen with the naked eye. Star colors are better described as “tints.” They are very much real and relate directly to the surface temperature of a star – but they are frequently difficult for beginners to see, and I’ve met some experienced observers who swear they can’t detect color in stars.

One reason is our eyes are simply not designed for it. We see color only when the light is bright. In dim light we see in black and white. Because telescopes gather more light, it is more likely that a star seen in a telescope will show its true color. But binoculars gather a lot more light than our naked eye, so they also help significantly when trying to detect color. And in this case we’re talking about a very red star known for a couple centuries as “William Herschel’s Garnet Star.” He described it as “a very fine deep garnet color . . . .”

Looking with binoculars  I really could not detect much color with 8X40 glasses. With 10X42 I could see some. With 11X56 it clearly had a reddish tint – and with 15X70 glasses I had no doubt that I was looking at the “Garnet Star.”

OK, my font color choices in this software don’t give me garnet, so I’ve been using red in this post. But this shot of the mineral garnet really looks – at least on my computer display – hauntingly like the tint I see for Mu Cephei in my telescope. What do you see? Mu Cephei is a variable, so if you happen to catch it near its brightest, it should be easy to pick out with the naked eye. Catch it when dim and it will be down in the range of the fainter stars of the Little Dipper. Once you identify it, ponder these facts, gathered from James Kaler’s “The Hundred Greatest Stars.” Mu Cephei is:

  • among the most luminous and largest stars in our galaxy
  • about 2,000 light years away
  • shining through lots of interstellar dust that diminishes it by about 2.5 magnitudes
  • radiates 350,000 times more energy than the Sun
  • has a radius that would mean that if placed in our Solar System it would engulf Mercury, Venus, the Earth, Mars, the asteroid belt, Jupiter, and reach nearly halfway to Saturn
  • is in a variable stage, is unstable, losing mass, and will “surely explode someday”

Of course “someday” to astronomers could mean millions of years. Don’t go out there assuming you might catch it going out in a blaze of garnet glory! Just go out there and enjoy this wonder of the universe. Oh – and that “variable stage” means it does change in brightness in an irregular fashion going up or down about a magnitude and a half. That’s one more factor that could impact how red it looks to you – catch it near it’s peak – magnitude 3.6 – and it should look redder simply because the more light we see the easier it is to see red. near minimum it is about magnitude 5 and the changes takes place irregularly over a period of 2 – 2.5 years.

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