A few weeks back, we talked about mechanical and computer models of the solar system called orreries that helped us visualize where the planets are and how they move around the sun.Â In that blog was a link to an online flash version. If you thought that one was cool, check out this new one, called Solar System Scope by Mito Sadlon. The graphics , 3-D realism and interactivity are fantastic. With a push of the mouse, you can see the solar system from any angle against the backdrop of the zodiac constellations, zoom in and out and set the date to any time you like. Clicking on a star opens a box with its name and distance. I guarantee you’ll feel like a kid and find yourself learning at the same time. One of the best tools to hit the Web this year.
If you’re up for a modest challenge, now’s the time the look for the celebrity star of the month, T Pyxidis. Every 20 years or so, this very faint star in the constellation Pyxis the Compass brightens to binocular visibility. It’s what astronomers call a recurrent or repeat nova, a small class of stars consisting of a sun-like star and a white dwarf. Gas robbed from the companion accumulates on the surface of the dwarf, where it’s heated until it ignites in a titantic thermonuclear explosion. Material is blasted into space at extreme speeds and the system suddenly brightens You can learn more about T Pyx in my earlier blog.
Since “D-Day” one week ago, T Pyx has shot up to magnitude 7.5, which is just 1 1/2 levels fainter than the faintest star typically visible with the naked eye. If the air is haze-free and you don’t have to contend with too much light pollution in the southern sky, a pair of 7x to 10x binoculars will show it.
Finding Pyxis is a far cry from locating the Big Dipper or Orion, yet with a little effort it can be done. What makes it tricky is how near the horizon the constellation is (from mid-northern latitudes) and how faint its stars are. There are a couple different routes you can take.
You can start with Sirius because it’s bright and easy to find, then sweep straight east (left) level with the horizon to Rho Puppis. Continue moving east from Rho until you bump into Gamma Pyxidis. Now drop down about one binocular field of view to Alpha. Once you’re at Alpha, just follow the ‘yellow brick road’ to a skinny triangle formed by the magnitude 6.9 star, an 8th magnitude star and T Pyx. T Pyx will look like a close double star with its close neighbor.
If the nova follows past behavior, it will continue to slowly brighten and peak in about a month or in mid-May. During its last outburst in January 1967 the star attained the naked eye limit.Â Another thing to watch for, especially if you’re using a telescope, is the T Pyx’s hue. Incandescent hydrogen gas emits a pink color, which can make a nova appear reddish after an explosion. Good luck and let us know if you spot this fascinating star.