Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Be on red alert for true super stars

For a short period you can see red supergiants Antares and Betelgeuse simultaneously.

For a short period you can see red supergiants Antares and Betelgeuse simultaneously. Photo: Reuters

The word ''super'' has almost lost its meaning. But for a reality check on the true meaning of the word, one needs to see it applied to supergiant red stars. Two red supergiants, Antares and Betelgeuse, are easily visible to the naked eye, and for a short period each year - May and early June - you can see them simultaneously.

Despite comprising less than 0.01 per cent of the stars in our galaxy, red supergiants are too bright to ignore and have the largest diameters in the starry zoo. They're stars that are nearing the end of their brief lives; despite lasting for perhaps 1 million years, that's very brief compared with our sun, which will reach 10 billion years. When they're done, they'll explode as supernovas.

They begin as massive stars - 10 times or more the mass of the sun, shining incredibly brightly and burning through their fuel at a furious pace. But the candle that burns twice as bright lasts only half as long.

Once they've used all their hydrogen, their diameters enlarge enormously, dwarfing stars such as the sun. If either Betelgeuse or Antares occupied the sun's position at the centre of the solar system, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars would all be orbiting inside the star! Now, that's a superstar.


Half an hour after sunset during the next two weeks, you'll find Betelgeuse by looking a little to the right of west and 15 to 20 degrees above the horizon. Keep in mind that 45 degrees is halfway between the horizon and the centre of the sky. It will be one of the three or four brightest stars in that area but has a distinct orange colour compared with the other stars.

To its left will be three stars in an equidistant vertical line. If you've not found it by 7pm, try again the next day.

For Antares, turn and look behind you a little right of east and again look for a bright star with an orange hue. It will be about 15 degrees above the horizon at 6pm this coming week.
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