By David Ward
February nights are mostly cloudy and we are all getting tired of this quasi-winter we’re having, so if you stay inside and watch TV all month, I will not blame you.
Speaking of TV, here is a scary thought. We may not be the only ones watching our TV shows. Television signals travel out into the cosmos at the speed of light forever. Remember that old show “The Dukes of Hazzard”? It is getting to the star Fomalhaut, a star that is known to have planets circling it, about now.
If anyone is out there with an antenna big enough pointed in our direction, they could be watching our old reruns. That is embarrassing! No wonder ET has not landed with gifts of amazing technology and free energy forever. They probably think we are all morons.
If you do want to go out into the cold at night, I will only give you one thing to look at so you do not have to stay out there too long. First, find the constellation Orion in the southeast. Orion is now the most striking and familiar constellation in the entire sky and I have written about it forever in this column, so if you cannot find it, go back inside and watch TV. At the upper left hand corner of Orion there is a bright star. A close look will reveal that it has a distinct red-orange color.
The name of this star is so weird that Hollywood named a crazy movie after it years ago, which was about dead people coming back to haunt their own house. The name comes from ancient Arabic and means “armpit of the giant.” Who would ever name a star after that part of the anatomy? Some scholars suggest that the name actually comes from an older Babylonian language and really means “the armpit of the sheep wearing the white girdle.” Now those people were really strange, dressing up their animals and all. The name of the star is Betelgeuse and it is the eighth-brightest star in the sky.
If you like big stuff you will love Betelgeuse because it is about the biggest thing around. It is hard to believe how big it is. If our sun was in the middle of that star, the planet Mercury could fit inside it along with Venus, Earth, Mars, the asteroid belt, and even Jupiter! Or suppose Betelgeuse was the size of a giant red beach ball as tall as a 10-story building. On that scale, Earth would be smaller than a period at the end of a sentence.
Another awesome thing about Betelgeuse is that it is going to blow up in a supernova explosion at anytime. So if you are out there, watch out! It could happen tonight or it could be another million years or so from now. The people who think about that kind of thing tell us that when it does blow it will outshine the moon at night and even be visible in the daytime. Luckily, we are far enough away not to get blown right off our little planet but we could get a big enough dose of radiation to alter the course of evolution here on Earth.
All of the bright planets are visible this month. Look for the rarely seen Mercury low in the west just after sunset. Jupiter is that real bright one to the left of Betelgeuse. Venus is shining in the east just before sunrise and Mars and Saturn are higher in the southern sky at dawn.
If you want to see Fomalhaut, you will have to wait until next fall when it can be seen as a bright star low in the south.
If you see Betelgeuse explode, be sure to let me know about it!