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Older Vega

June 13, 2013

The brilliant star shining in the eastern sky shortly after sunset tonight is beautiful Vega. It’s the brightest member of the constellation Lyra, and one of the best-known stars in the sky.

Different perspective views of Vega, which is much bigger and heavier than the Sun, and rotates much faster, giving it a squashed appearance [J. Aufdenberg/NOAO/AURA/NSF]Perspective views of VegaDuring the 1980s, Vega achieved even greater fame when a space telescope detected dust orbiting the star, suggesting that it might be giving birth to planets. Because of that, astronomer Carl Sagan chose to make Vega the star in the novel “Contact.” In the novel, a signal from intelligent life is beamed from Vega, but the aliens aren’t native to the star. That’s because, as Sagan well knew, Vega was thought to be much too young to have developed intelligent life on any possible planets.

In recent years, though, astronomers have raised the estimates of Vega’s age. In part, that’s because they've discovered that the star spins fast, which distorts its shape.

A team of observers recently studied Vega with an array of telescopes that are linked together to provide sharp views of the heavens. These observations reveal that Vega is even older than had been thought. By using new models of how rapidly-spinning stars age, the astronomers concluded that Vega is between 625 million and 850 million years old.

That’s still only a fraction as old as the Sun. But when the Sun was that age, Earth may already have hosted primitive life. So when you look at Vega tonight, consider that it may have worlds where life has just begun — a mere 25 light-years away.

More about Vega tomorrow.


Script by Ken Croswell, Copyright 2013

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