Monday, September 2, 2013

The Facebook Nova

I heard about it in mid August pretty much the way I learn about a lot of these things now...Facebook!

And what a lot was being said about it! A nova in Delphinus! But not just a dim, far away star that would challenge the limits of a backyard telescope! Nope, this was turning into one of the brightest novae in recent record. Certainly in my lifetime.

Two words that sparks all kinds of thrills for an amateur astronomer: naked eye!

If you're new to astronomy or not familiar with the terms, basically a nova is a star going "boom!" Well to be more precise, it's a runaway thermonuclear reaction from a small star stealing matter from a larger companion which then goes boom. But I'm not here to pick nits!

I found out the location, again off the many Facebook posts that linked information from the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) which gave coordinates in the sky. Plotting it out showed that it was in a remarkably straightforward location. Although the nova was officially within the boundaries of the constellation of Delphinus, the dolphin, it was most easily located using Sagitta, the arrow. It was pointing right at it!

And the amazing thing was how bright it was proving to be...around magnitude 5.5 or so. Just above the limit for naked eye visibility! Armed with my binoculars and a sky map, I set out to find it, anticipating it to still be a challenge. We're talking the night sky, after all! There's a lot of stars up there. But nope! After a few careful minutes comparing sky map to actual sky, there it was! After a couple of days, I could very easily make it out with my naked eye, even with the interference of a bright and nearby moon!

I've been watching it over the last few weeks. The last few days have been...well...cloudy! But I continue to eagerly await clear skies again to watch it some more. It's dimming now and, while to me it has always had a dim yellowish hue, the last time I was out it was definitely yellowy-orange! Such is the morphology of novae.

And this is the true appeal of it! That's because, far from being static, the sky is full of change! New stars appear and disappear sometimes from our own galaxy and even in distant galaxies! Far from sedate, the sky shows incredible violence but also, from that violence, stunning beauty! It's a stark and awe-inspiring contrast!

So go out and find it for yourself if you haven't already seen it!

Now, if only we could get Betelgeuse in Orion to go SUPERnova!

Clear skies!

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