Altair, the brightest star of the constellation Aquila, the eagle, forms one of the points of the brilliant Summer Triangle, which is well up in the east as night falls on July evenings. The star's name comes from an Arabic phrase that means 'the flying eagle.' The inset image at upper right shows the star's shape, which is distorted because Altair spins on its axis much faster than the Sun does. The inset at lower left shows a scene from the 1956 movie 'Forbidden Planet,' which takes place on a fictional planet orbiting Altair. [Damond Benningfield; top right: John Monnier/Univ. Michigan; lower left, MGM]
Science fiction loves the star Altair. Planets in the Altair system have been the setting for many novels, short stories, TV episodes, movies, and video games. In some of these stories, Earth wipes out the Altarians; in others, the Altarians wipe out Earth. The planets have been home to Earth colonies, an interstellar monetary system, and an interstellar junkyard.
Perhaps the best-known of the bunch is the 1956 movie “Forbidden Planet,” in which a starship from Earth tries to rescue the survivors of an expedition from 20 years earlier. The survivors had found the remnants of an advanced race known as the Krell.
But so far, all those planets are just fiction. Even though Altair is just 17 light-years away, astronomers haven’t discovered a single planet around the star.
They have found that Altair contains a lot of heavy elements. That means the cloud of material that gave birth to Altair offered plenty of ingredients for planets. A lot of those ingredients are still there, in the form of dust grains around the star.
Any planets that do orbit Altair are unlikely to host intelligent life — or perhaps any life. Altair is much younger than the Sun, so there’s been a lot less time for life to develop. So we’re not likely to find the remains of an ancient civilization like the Krell at this bright stellar neighbor.
Look for Altair in the east as night falls. The bright white star forms the lower right corner of the giant Summer Triangle.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012
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