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Morning Moon

February 12, 2015

Two bright companions accompany the Moon tomorrow morning. The planet Saturn is to the right of the Moon at first light, with Antares, the brightest star of Scorpius, about the same distance to the Moon’s lower right.

Saturn aligns with the stars that form the scorpion’s head, quite near a star known as Beta Scorpii. This pinpoint of light is actually a family of at least six stars. A small telescope reveals two of the stars, but it takes a bigger telescope and special instruments to detect the others.

The system’s two main stars are both at least 10 times as massive as the Sun, hundreds of times bigger, and thousands of times brighter. Such impressive stars burn through the nuclear fuel in their cores in a hurry, so they live short but brilliant lives. And when they’ve used up that fuel, they explode as supernovae, briefly shining as bright as billions of normal stars.

Beta Scorpii and Antares belong to a large group of stars known as the Scorpius-Centaurus Association. The stars in this group are all quite young. Beta Scorpii, in fact, is just 11 million years old — less than one percent the age of the Sun. Many of the other stars in this group are also big and bright, so they, too, will end their lives with titanic explosions. So the stars of Scorpius will produce a lot of brilliant fireworks over the next few million years — the blink of an eye on the long astronomical timescale.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014

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