Tag: Shakespeare

Runaway star

By Phil Plait | June 22, 2010 7:24 am

"I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament."
Julius Caesar (III, i, 60 – 62)

Shakespeare was a decent writer, but an astronomer he wasn’t. The North Star isn’t fix’d, because the Earth’s axis wobbles slowly like a top. You wouldn’t see this by eye, since the circuit takes 26,000 years to complete, but astronomers deal with it all the time.

But Shakespeare did get something right in that passage: the stars themselves do move. It’s slow, but it’s there. It’s caused by their orbital motion as they circle the center of the Milky Way. Their velocity can be hundreds of kilometers per second, but that apparent motion is dwarfed to a near standstill by their forbidding distance. Of course, that means that closer stars will appear to move faster than ones farther away, just like trees by the side of the road whiz by as you drive, but distant mountains slide along in a much more stately manner.

It takes decades, sometimes, to see that stellar movement at all — astronomers call it proper motion — but it’s not impossible. Greek amateur astronomer Anthony Ayiomamitis (who has been featured on this blog before here and here) knew that very well, and he was able to prove it. Behold, the unfix’d heavens!

barnards_star_split

These two pictures show the same region of sky, separated in time by six decades. The top, taken in 1950, is from the famous Palomar Sky Survey, a tool still used by astronomers to guide their observations. The marked star is Barnard’s Star, a dinky, dim red bulb a mere 6 light years away — which makes it one of the closest of all the stars in the galaxy.
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures
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