A Mystery Befuddles Hubble

Looking east tonight around 9 p.m. (Sept. 16). The moon hangs two outstretched fists below the Great Square of Pegasus, the mythological flying horse. To see the Square more easily, cover the moon with one hand. Aries the Ram is the small, fingerlike constellation two fists to the left of the moon. — created with Stellarium

These past nights of moon and clouds have been breathtaking. The way the clouds cover and then slowly reveal the moon’s face, the colorful coronas and my favorite — the sudden illumination of the landscape when the moon pops out of the clouds. I hope you’re enjoying walking at night and the good smells that season the damp air.

The forecast is for clear skies tonight, and if you have the inclination, you can use the moon to help you find the Square of Pegasus and little Aries the Ram in the eastern sky from around 9 p.m. on. Moonlight will make the sky bright, but I think you’ll still be able to see these constellations. I just want to get you warmed up for when the moon is out of the sky this coming weekend. We’ll have places to go and things to see once darkness returns.

The mystery object photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2006, before (left) and during its outburst. If you have a scientific bent, you can read the full paper by the discoverers here. Photo: K. Barbary and others, HST

You may have heard the recent news about a mystery object photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope on February 21, 2006 in the constellation of Bootes the Herdsman. The scope was focused at the time on the distant galaxy cluster CL 1432.5+3332.8, when it began to see something brighten from invisibility, shine for about 100 days and then fade back into the sky. A close study of its light with an instrument called a spectrograph rules out a galaxy, supernova or a chance alignment of stars. The mystery object doesn’t seem to match anything observed in any sky survey. Whatever it is, the object brightened by a factor of 120 before disppearing – for now.

The Hubble mystery object is in the constellation of Bootes (Boh-OH-teez), well-placed in our northwestern sky just off the Handle of the Big Dipper. The map is drawn for 8:30 p.m. Arcturus is the bright, pink star in Bootes that’s easily spotted even in twilight. — created with Stellarium

Scientists love a good mystery. The first thing they’re trying to pin down is its distance. That’ll help establish how big a blast or burst it was. Right now estimates range from at least 130 light years to as far as 11 billion. A lot can happen within those parameters. Even if it doesn’t turn out to be something exotic, our curiosity and desire to learn its origin may lead us to other unanticipated discoveries. And if our mystery does turn out to be something brand new, expect a small minority of people on Earth to devote their lives to its understanding. We are an amazing, inquisitive species.

That’s why it makes sense to look up, both for professional astronomers and the rest of us. Even if you’re not the first to report the next supernova in the Milky Way, letting your curiosity track among the stars will most assuredly lead to personal discoveries that deepen your appreciation of the world.