Last night I discovered the planet Mars.
“Excuse me?” someone is probably saying. “Haven’t humans being seeing the Red Planet for thousands of years?”
Yes, they have. But if you’re not out looking at them night after night, you can lose track of the planets easily.
We’ve had clouds for the last several weeks, and I hadn’t been out that late at night in several months. But I was up writing, my wife was talking to a friend, and along about 11:30 PM, I went out with the dogs.
As is my custom, I stepped out into the yard and looked up in the sky. In the Eastern sky was a dazzling point of light. I looked at it and went, now where did that come from?
At first, I thought I was looking at a Nova. A Nova is a form of exploding star. In many cases what we have here is a white dwarf star circling another star closely.
A white dwarf is the corpse of a star. In several billion years, our Sun, having used all its hydrogen and unable to sustain the nuclear reactions that keeps it going, will begin to fuse Helium. When that happens our Sun will bloat up to what we call a red giant. Think of our sun swelling up to consume Mercury, Venus, maybe even the Earth and Mars, and you get a good idea of how big it would be.
However, it can’t keep this up forever. The Sun would blow off its outer layers forming what we call a planetary nebula. This is a star’s ghost, so to speak. What’s left behind is the core of our star, and we call that a white dwarf. Our once large sun will shrink down an object about the size of the Earth. It will be an incredibly dense object with a very small amount of it (somewhere around a tablespoon full) weighing about the same as a battleship.
The White Dwarf Sun will still be incredibly hot, and will shine for several billion years. But it will shine from residual head and it won’t nearly be hot enough to keep whatever remains of our solar system from freezing over.
But eventually, it will cool down and become a black dwarf floating through the cosmic void attended by several worlds that are also frozen over.
White dwarfs are rather common. The nearest one we know of orbits the star Sirus, about 11 light years away. It’s so dim you need a powerful telescope to see it, but it’s there.
But let’s change the scenario a little. Let’s take a white dwarf and put it into orbit around another star. Now it’s not uncommon for stars to have a companion a star. A high percentage of stars in the skies are doubles, triples, and sometimes even more. This is just two or more stars that happen to orbit around a common center of gravity. One of the stars usually dies faster than the other, and as time goes by, they start to spiral closer and closer. Eventually the white dwarf, which is a rather strong gravitational source, starts to steal gases from its companion. As time goes by, more and more gas is accumulated on the white dwarf till there’s enough pressure, and the heat from the still hot white dwarf and that causes nuclear fusion to occur.
It’s a little like tossing gasoline on an almost dead fire. It flares up in an explosion of heat and light and for several months we have a new star that appears in the sky. Eventually it fades away, and the process starts all over again.
And my enthusiasm about maybe seeing a Nova in the skies faded almost as quickly. I realized the light from the star was steady, and it was right smack in the middle of the ecliptic.
I’d found Mars.
At least I’m in good company. Not too many years ago, a professional astronomer made the same mistake. He always used a certain star to check the settings on his telescope. Weather had hampered his observations for several weeks. Well, when he swung his telescope around and looked though his finder scope at his guide star, near it was a bright red star.
Well, he reported it through the Astronomical Union of a possible Nova or Supernova. Every other astronomer in the world then swung their telescopes around to check it out.
Within about ten minutes he was congratulated with the discovering the exact same world I had. Mars had drifted into the view of his finderscope.
So, in the history books, he still gets credit for finding Mars since he reported it first.