Looking Up: Objects In (Telescope) Mirror May Be Closer Than They Appear

Jun 11, 2018

Created: 31 December 2013
Credit NASA/Penn State University / wikipedia / public domain

This week on Looking Up we are introduced to Barnard's Star.

There is a lovely constellation in the Southern Colorado sky right now, with the awkward name of Ophiuchus. And in Ophiuchus is a remarkable star with the unusually possessive name of Barnard’s Star.

The constellation Ophiuchus is high overhead and it looks like, well, kind of like a coffin, but according to various ancient cultures, it represents the god Apollo fighting a snake, or a group of sitting gods, or, well, someone standing on a snake. But to me, it looks more like the outline of, well, like I said, a coffin.

Anyway, back to Barnard and his star. It seems that in 1916 American astronomer E.E. Barnard noticed a star that was doing something very odd indeed. It seems Barnard’s Star did not appear fixed and unmoving, relative to observers on Earth. Rather, it was moving pretty quickly across the night sky. Even though all stars are moving, they are so far away that they don’t appear to move over the course of a human lifetime, but Barnard’s Star does. That’s because it’s really close – only 6 light years away – and that helped us measure lots of other distances. It’s so close that we could observe and discover lots of things about it, and it is likely the most studied little red dwarf star out there. It’s about 10 billion years old, which is really old for a star. Just think, it had been shining for 6 B years or so before our Sun was born. And yet, in 1998, it managed to throw off a massive stellar flare of plasma, something scientists thought the star was too old to pull off. Just goes to show, 10 billion is the new 1 billion.

If you’d like to take a closer look at the Barnard’s Star, or any of the other wonderful and amazing things in the sky, please visit csastro.org for a link to information on our monthly meetings and our free public star parties.