The Stars: August
Monday 26 July 2010
In 1974, Frank Drake, director of the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, had completed the task of resurfacing the world's biggest radio telescope. This enormous dish, 300 metres across, was now the most powerful on Earth. How to celebrate its switch-on?
His PA had the bright idea: "Use the telescope in reverse to beam a message about life on Earth to the stars." Drake's team worked on a coded message, a series on on-off pulses. It was beamed towards M13, a globular cluster of stars in the rather obscure constellation of Hercules. This dense ball of stars, which looks like a swarm of bees, lies 25,000 light years away. So if ET hears the message and picks up the phone, we can expect a reply in about 50,000 years!
Globular clusters are the oldest denizens of our Galaxy. They form an outer "scaffold" surrounding the Milky Way, each containing thousands – sometimes hundreds of thousands – of ancient red stars. Most globulars are only visible through binoculars or a telescope. M13 is a rare exception: on a clear night you can glimpse it with the naked eye, as a small fuzzy patch of light. Hercules is home to another globular cluster, M92, not far from M13.
We have our own earthbound fireworks in November, and the French and Americans theirs in July, but the sky puts on its best display of pyrotechnics in August. This year the show will be especially spectacular as that light-polluting spoilsport, the Moon, is below the horizon. Any time in the first three weeks of the month, you may spot a shooting star zipping across the sky from the constellation Perseus. The show reaches a crescendo on the night of 12-13 August, when we may be treated to a meteor every minute or two. These shooting stars are specks of cosmic dirt shed by Comet Swift-Tuttle as it traipses around the solar system, and burn up as they hit the Earth's atmosphere. The dust motes are travelling in parallel paths, but perspective makes them seem to spread out from a point in Perseus (see chart).
The first three weeks of August also treat us to a planetary dance, low in the West after sunset. The leader is brilliant Venus, and at the start of the month the fainter planets Mars and Saturn lie to its upper left. The slender crescent Moon joins the planetary frolic on 12 and 13 August.
Later in the evening, giant planet Jupiter dominates the eastern skies, shining among the dull stars below the flying horse, Pegasus. High in the south you'll find the Summer Triangle, its corners marked by the bright stars Deneb, Altair and Vega. Down on the southern horizon, look out for orange-red Antares, marking the heart of the scorpion, Scorpius. And to its left lies the celestial archer, Sagittarius – which to our eyes looks far more like a teapot!
3: 5.58 am Moon at Last Quarter
7: Mercury at greatest elongation east
10: 4.08 am New Moon
12/13: Maximum of Perseid meteor shower
16: 7.14 pm Moon at First Quarter
20: Venus at greatest elongation east
24: 6.04 pm Full Moon
Geoffrey Macnab reviews American Hustle, also starring Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper
newsFormer soldier taped 33 of the animals to the floor and then stamped on them one by one
Michelle Nijhuis' daughter insists (s)he is, and she learnt a valuable lesson on gender in books
news Opponents claim it would stop performers such as Beyonce and Madonna appearing on TV
It takes a platoon of chefs, litres of brandy and rum, and almost 100kg of dried fruit
food + drink
sportIf you thought the London Olympics and Wiggins' Tour glory made last year best, don't forget Murray's Wimbledon win and Farah's world double
Exclusive: Young people ‘want UK to stay in Europe’: Four in 10 adults aged 18 to 24 are ‘firmly in favour’ of membership, poll shows
Tom Daley ‘is gay because his father died’ says UK evangelist
Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
Kiss and yell: Italian protester charged with sexual assault after kissing riot police officer
PM denies two child limit for benefits is part of Tory welfare policy
Anachronistic and iniquitous, grammar schools are a blot on the British education system
- 1 America's 'virgin births'? One in 200 mothers 'became pregnant without having sex'
- 2 Sun will 'flip upside down' within weeks, says Nasa
- 3 Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber is 'retiring from music'
- 4 Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
- 5 Children evacuated from swimming pool after prosthetic leg mistaken for paedophile
- < Previous
- Next >
£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: QA .NET Agile UNIX LIN...
£35000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: C# ASP.NET SQL Develop...
Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET SQL Developer (Software Developer, Softw...
£500 - £650 per day: Harrington Starr: Excellent opportunity for Murex Subject...