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Revolutionary Star

April 10, 2011

In early April of 1836, the Texas Revolution was nearing its climax. The Alamo had fallen just weeks earlier, followed by the massacre of Texas troops at Goliad. Now, the forces of Texas and Mexico were converging for what would be the decisive battle at San Jacinto, near present-day Houston.

A reminder of that long-gone battle comes from one of the brightest stars of the constellation Crater, the cup, which is in the southeast at nightfall. The star is 175 light-years away, so the light we see from the star tonight actually began its journey toward Earth 175 years ago -- at the time of the Texas Revolution.

The star is known as Alkes -- an Arabic name that means "the wine cup" -- and as Alpha Crateris. It's bigger and heavier than the Sun.

And even though it's not much to look at, Alkes is also close to a hundred times brighter than the Sun, which is why it's visible to the unaided eye. From the same distance, the Sun would be so faint that you'd need a telescope to pick it out. In fact, you'd have to move the Sun to about one-fifth of the distance to Alkes to see it at all.

It's hard to envision just how far away 175 light-years really is. At the speed of an airliner, it would take more than 200 million years to get there. And even in the fastest rocket, the journey would still take more than three million years. So for now, it's a journey we can take only in our imaginations -- by the light of a distant star.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011


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