The summer solstice has passed now so we will gradually get improved lighting conditions for observing. The notes here apply at 11.00pm BST at the end of the first week of the month and at 10.00pm BST at the beginning of the last week in the month. However I find that at present the sky doesn’t really get dark until after midnight and this month you will need a clear view to the southern horizon with no obstructions and free from local light pollution. I did have a look out on the morning of June 19th to see the close approach of Venus and the Moon but I’m afraid the cloudy skies were against me.
Back at the beginning of April if you looked directly above you while facing south, the Plough was directly overhead (at your zenith) and looked like a plough. Now you will notice that it has moved anti-clockwise about the North Pole and is now upright on its handle. Keep checking the orientation of the Plough as the year progresses.
So while facing south, look directly above you and just before your zenith you will see a very bright star. Perhaps this is the time to get your deckchair out and lie flat on your back! This star is easily recognisable due to its brilliance and a grouping of four stars to its bottom left hand side. These stars make up the compact constellation Lyra (the Lyre or Harp) and the bright star is Vega, alpha Lyr, the 3rd brightest star visible from the northern hemisphere. The lighter region of the diagram to the left of Vega represents the Milky Way, the star filled disc of our galaxy, and there you find a giant cross in the sky and this is the constellation Cygnus (the Swan) with the bright star Deneb, alpha Cyg, representing the tail of the swan which is flying down the Milky Way. Deneb is the 14th brightest star visible from the northern hemisphere. At the head of the long neck is the star Alberio, beta Cyg, about which I have heard our chairman, Hugh, wax lyrical on more than one occasion so do look at it through a telescope if you get the chance.
Now face Vega and Deneb and drop down about halfway to the horizon till you find the star Altair in the constellation Aquila (the Eagle). Altair, alpha Aql, is identified by two fainter stars either side of it and together they point to Vega.
I hope you have been keeping count of these bright stars because Altair is the 8th brightest star visible from the northern hemisphere and you have now become acquainted with eight of the eighteen brightest stars. These three stars Vega, Deneb and Altair form what is called the Summer Triangle depicted in yellow in the diagram. The Summer Triangle is something you will be able to enjoy looking at for the rest of the summer into autumn. Like the Plough it is a big help in finding your bearings.
Now let us be a little more subtle because biggest and brightest isn’t always the best. Last month we found Arcturus by following round the arc of the handle of the Plough. Between Vega and Arcturus you find the constellations Hercules (the strong man from Greek mythology) and Corona Borealis (the Northern Crown). Hercules is a fairly faint constellation and looks more like flailing windmill blades than a strong man but the most distinctive feature is the four central stars in the shape of a quadrilateral forming an asterism known as the Keystone. Corona Borealis is small but distinctive, consisting of seven faint stars in a horseshoe shape if you cannot envisage a crown.
We are quite unashamedly going back to bright star ‘bagging’. We are doing this because the object in question is best observed in summertime. Imagine a line from Vega to Arcturus and from its midpoint follow a line to the horizon between Hercules and Corona Borealis until you see a reddish star. Remember you will need a good unobstructed view to your southern horizon. This star is Antares, the brightest star in the constellation Scorpius (the scorpion) and is the sole attraction because most of Scorpius and specifically its fish-hook shaped tail is not visible from our latitude. Antares is the 10th brightest star visible from the northern hemisphere and that is because it is a red supergiant and if it were to replace our sun, its surface would lie between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. That is big! It is said to represent the heart of the scorpion.
Something to look out for
The major planets, Jupiter and Saturn, return to the late evening sky this month quite close together and visible all night. On July 14th Jupiter will be at opposition, on the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun, so will be at its closest and brightest. A week later on the 20th July, Saturn reaches opposition but unfortunately both planets will be quite low in the southern sky and although bright are not ideally located for good viewing.
This year, we celebrate 30 years of the history of the Hubble Space Telescope Here’s the HST itself, and one of its most famous images, taken in 1995.
The extent of the universe
The HST is named after the American astronomer, Edwin P Hubble, whose observations in the early 20th Century, lead to two, profound discoveries. Looking into these we will also meet several other important characters.
Hubble was physically large and imposing. he was a US Army boxing champion, serving at the closing stages of WW1, although his unit did not go into combat. He affected an English accent despite being very much an American.
For the first twenty or so years of the twentieth Century, there was great scientific debate about the extent of the universe. Many scientists believed at the time that the whole of the universe consisted of our Milky Way galaxy, and that what were then called “spiral nebulae” were some kind of structure within the Milky Way. Following painstaking observations at the 100 inch Hooker telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California, Hubble and his assistant Humasson established in 1924 that spiral nebulae are in fact remote galaxies in their own right; they are now called spiral galaxies.
Hubble’s discovery was made possible by way of an earlier crucial discovery made by Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who worked at the Harvard College Observatory. Leavitt had the task of examining photographic plates to measure and catalog the brightness of stars.
This work led Leavitt to discover the so-called 'period-luminosity relationship' of Cepheid variable stars. Probably the best known Cepheid variable star is Polaris, the current pole star. Leavitt’s discovery was that the rate at which these stars appeared to vary in brightness was directly related to their intrinsic luminosity. This meant that measuring the period of change provided astronomers with the first "standard candle" with which to measure the distance to remote astronomical objects. Hubble used this technique to show that Cepheids in the Andromeda galaxy, M31, was too far distant to be part of the Milky Way Galaxy. It was later discovered that there different types of Cepheid variables, and this meant that M31 is actually twice as far distant as Hubble first calculated.
The expansion of the universe
Hubble’s second observational discovery was to prove equally profound. It was in fact preceded by a theoretical discovery by Georges Lemaître, a Belgian Catholic priest and professor of physics at the Catholic University of Louvain. Lemaître applied Einstein’s general relativity (GR) to cosmology deriving solutions to Einsteins field equations, giving results that implied an expanding universe.
Extrapolating back in time, Lemaître postulated an origin of the universe in what he called a 'primeval atom' – in effect, the “big bang”. This was in 1927, two years before Hubble's publication of his observational findings of expansion of the universe.
An advanced mathematician, Lemaître could hold his corner in intellectual argument with Einstein (no less!). The two met on several occasions, including at the Solvay Conference in 1931.
Albert Einstein of course needs no introduction. Einstein published his theory of General Relativity in 1917. Developed from his theory of Special Relativity (published in 1905), GR included an explanation of the phenomenon of gravity. Among other things, GR successfully accounted for variations in the precession of the orbit of Mercury which Newtonian gravitational theory was unable to explain. Einstein had believed that the universe was static, although others (including Alexander Friedman and Georges Lemaître) provided solutions to his equations that indicated that the universe must be either expanding or contracting.
In January 1931, Einstein visited Hubble at the Mount Wilson Observatory where the 100 inch Hooker telescope is located.
Einstein, perhaps rather reluctantly, conceded that the expansion predicted by general relativity must be real, added a term called the 'cosmological constant' to his field equations. In later life, he said that this was "his biggest blunder", although today the cosmological constant is now thought by many cosmologists to account for the role of dark energy.
Confirming Hubble’s discovery using modern data
Hubble's observations, published in 1929, established that the spectra of majority of galaxies exhibit a redshift, showing they are moving away from us, and that the further away they are, the faster they appear to be receding. This became what is now called Hubble's Law and is a cornerstone of modern cosmology.
The data plot below shows the plot published in Hubble's 1929 paper.
The slope of the trendline indicates the value of what is called the Hubble parameter, H₀, a measure of the velocity of recession of galaxies vs. distance. Hubble's early estimate was that H₀ ~500 km s¯¹ Mpc¯¹ . This was quickly realized to be much too high, as it implied an age of the universe of less than 2 million years, whereas it was known that Earth was much older than this.
The plot below has been constructed from modern data in the NASA Extragalactic Database (NED).
As in Hubble’s work, the plot shows recessional velocities against distances. The red trendline represents H₀. Observations since Hubble's time have refined and reduced the value of H₀ and today the value is thought to be in the range 60-90 km s¯¹ Mpc¯¹ - the exact value is still highly debated in the community. The slope indicates on this plot for this sample of 44 galaxies, H₀ ~64 km s¯¹ Mpc¯¹ .
For Hubble’s confirmation of the extent of the universe and for Hubble’s Law, the Hubble Space Telescope, which has made so many discoveries of its own in its 30 year operation, is named in his honour.