Astronomy Picture of the Day
APOD: 2000 June 11 - Sirius: The Brightest Star in the Night
Explanation: Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky. Sirius is visible on the far left of the above photograph, to the left of the constellation of Orion and Comet Hale-Bopp. Intrinsically, Sirius is over 20 times brighter than our Sun and over twice as massive. As Sirius is 8.7 light years distant, it is not the closest star system - the Alpha Centauri system holds this distinction. Sirius is called the Dog Star because of its prominence in the constellation of Canis Majoris (Big Dog). In 1862, Sirius was discovered to be a binary star system with a companion star, Sirius B, 10,000 times dimmer than the bright primary, Sirius A. Sirius B was the first white dwarf star discovered, a type of star first understood by Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar in 1930. While studying Sirius in 1718, Edmond Halley discovered that stars move with respect to each other. There is conflicting evidence that Sirius appeared more red only 2000 years ago.
APOD: 2005 December 4 - Proxima Centauri: The Closest Star
Explanation: What is the closest star to our Sun? It is Proxima Centauri, the nearest member of the Alpha Centauri triple star system. Light takes only 4.22 years to reach us from Proxima Centauri. This small red star, captured in the center of the above image, is so faint that it was only discovered in 1915 and is only visible through a telescope. Stars of all types from our Milky Way Galaxy are visible in the background. The brightest star in the Alpha Centauri system is quite similar to our Sun, has been known as long as recorded history, and is the third brightest star in the night sky. The Alpha Centauri system is primarily visible from Earth's Southern Hemisphere.
APOD: 1999 October 6 - Polaris: The North Star
Explanation: Polaris is quite an unusual star. First, Polaris is the nearest bright star to the north spin axis of the Earth. Therefore, as the Earth turns, stars appear to rotate around Polaris, making it the North Star. Since no bright star is near the south spin axis of the Earth, there is currently no South Star. Thousands of years ago, Earth's spin axis pointed in a slightly different direction, and Vega was the North Star. Although Polaris is not the brightest star on the sky, it is easily located because it is nearly aligned with two stars in the cup of the Big Dipper, and is the last star in the handle of the Little Dipper. In the above picture, Polaris is the brightest star on the right, above the fleeting streak of a Perseid meteor. The surface of Polaris slowly pulsates, causing the star to change its brightness by a few percent over the course of a few days. This rare Cepheid variability of Polaris is, oddly enough, itself changing.
APOD: 1998 August 23 - Vega
Explanation: Vega is a bright blue star 25 light years away. Vega is the brightest star in the Summer Triangle, a group of stars easily visible summer evenings in the northern hemisphere. The name Vega derives from Arabic origins, and means "stone eagle." 4,000 years ago, however, Vega was known by some as "Ma'at" - one example of ancient human astronomical knowledge and language. 14,000 years ago, Vega, not Polaris, was the north star. Vega is the fifth brightest star in the night sky, and has a diameter almost three times that of our Sun. Life bearing planets, rich in liquid water, could possibly exist around Vega. The above picture, taken in January 1997, finds Vega, the Summer Triangle, and Comet Hale-Bopp high above Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
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