Polarises? Polarii?
January 10, 2006 8:51 AM   Subscribe

Hubble reveals that the North Star is not one, not two, but THREE stars. Dear god, we've all been living a lie. I feel so disillusioned.
posted by 40 Watt (36 comments total)
 
Maybe it's contact lens fell off? Hasn't that thing crashed into Fiji yet?

I kid, I kid.
posted by Pollomacho at 9:07 AM on January 10, 2006


The Three Magi preferred travel at night
posted by CynicalKnight at 9:08 AM on January 10, 2006


Too bad we're throwing it away.
posted by Rothko at 9:10 AM on January 10, 2006


And if the Hubble were powerful enough we might found out it is many more than three... but manned space flight is so Star Wars cool and who wants to be burdened by real science when there are high school experiments to conduct and "space walks" to make.
posted by three blind mice at 9:14 AM on January 10, 2006


boy, you space geeks are a bitter bunch.
posted by crunchland at 9:16 AM on January 10, 2006


oh come now, three blind mice. tell us how you really feel.
posted by shmegegge at 9:21 AM on January 10, 2006


Come on though, Polaris A is totally pulling all the weight. Just think how bright it could be if Ab and B put down the Doritos and bong and committed a little more team effort.
posted by Peter H at 9:21 AM on January 10, 2006


(Looks at astrological charts.)

Well, hell, this explains why I kept predicting the Cubs to win.
posted by eriko at 9:24 AM on January 10, 2006


I thought the North Stars moved to Texas years ago. And it seemed like there were a hell of a lot more than three of them.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:29 AM on January 10, 2006


ISTR from my high-school astronomy class that the middle star in Ursa Major's "handle" is double star, too.
posted by alumshubby at 9:31 AM on January 10, 2006


If I remember my undergrad astronomy, the object that "the North Star" refers to actually changes periodically due to the precession of Earth's axis. So saying that the north star is actually several stars is not saying anything heretofore unknown.

Course, what is being got at is that "Polaris" refers to three stars, and that is interesting.

In regards to Rothko's statement, I thought that I read somewhere that the plan to scrap the Hubble was being reconsidered. Does anyone have any info on this?
posted by Tullius at 9:32 AM on January 10, 2006


Nasa Plans to have 19 flights with the Space shuttle before retirement. 18 Flights for the ISS, and 1 to service Hubble.
posted by McSly at 9:55 AM on January 10, 2006


It would be more interesting if scientists insisted that the 'real' Polaris is the dimmest of the three, but laymen have always just used the bright one to find an approximation of Polaris' real position.
posted by Balisong at 9:58 AM on January 10, 2006


While the HST has produced some incredible images over the last decade, ground-based telescopes can hold their own these days, thanks to adaptive optics. It's also phenomenally expensive ($14bn to date, vs $140m for the Keck pair*).

Despite the inherent coolness of everything related to space, I'd rather have ten Kecks, and ten times the science output.

Of course that's discounting the fact that without the cool factor, there would probably be no money for anything space related. I'm no fan of the space walks either, three blind mice, but remember that the average joe whose taxes pay for this malarky finds them superawesome. As long as Mr Joe there is happy, the minority of the population who is interested in the science can continue to enjoy it at the taxpayers' expense without feeling guilty and elitist. Er, I guess.

* OK, that $140m figure doesn't include ongoing running costs, but at a mere tens of millions a year, it's pocket change compared to the total cost of Hubble.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 10:01 AM on January 10, 2006


Show me on the doll where the space walks touched you, three blind mice.
posted by thanotopsis at 10:13 AM on January 10, 2006


I see an odd appropriateness to this. The "modern" approach to navigation -- the GPS receiver -- is (generalizing wildly) a system that averages the relationship between itself and several satellites of known position to "triangulate" (for lack of more precise terminology) its own position (/generalizing wildly). So, the thought that we've been averaging three stars (or more) for generations to find "North" seems to make a certain retroactive sort of sense.
posted by mmahaffie at 10:20 AM on January 10, 2006


Tullius - The fact that the earth precesses has nothing to do with the number of stars making up Polaris. It means that Polaris goes in a circle of a few degrees every 25,000 years or so. Wikipedia

What this article is reffering to is a ternary star system, where 3 stars are so close together that they seem like one star to the observer. Polaris was already known to be a binary star, but it was no big deal because binary stars are extremely common in the universe.
posted by anomie at 10:34 AM on January 10, 2006


To answer the question posed in the title: Polaris is from medieval Latin polaris 'polar'; my Latin is a little rusty, but I'm pretty sure the plural would be Polares.

Nice post!
posted by languagehat at 10:35 AM on January 10, 2006


Sorry Tulius, I reread your comment and it looks like you understood that. Nevermind!
posted by anomie at 10:35 AM on January 10, 2006


My God . . . it's full of stars!
posted by fandango_matt at 11:04 AM on January 10, 2006


I'd rather have ten Kecks

I'll see your ten Kecks, and raise you a JWST
posted by CynicalKnight at 11:07 AM on January 10, 2006


Wait, Polaris is three stars? NASA so totally stole that idea from Star Wars.
posted by fandango_matt at 11:11 AM on January 10, 2006


NASA is just making shit up in order to get attention. Stars. Heh!
posted by StarForce5 at 11:18 AM on January 10, 2006


Peter H and thanotopsis = gold
posted by shoepal at 11:23 AM on January 10, 2006


"What's the plural of apocalypse?" Buffy.
posted by nyxxxx at 11:49 AM on January 10, 2006


Yeah, manned space flight hasn't produced anything of worth. Who needs medical imaging, fire resistant and thermal fabrics, CAD, bar codes, personal computers, and satellite technology? Yes, it's indirect, but what people forget is that manned space flight provides the funds, inspiration, and application for inventing all sorts of technology. The assumption that these things would be invented and tested independent of that drive---or that reallocating NASA funds would somehow free up money for "real" science---is flawed.
posted by lunalaguna at 1:02 PM on January 10, 2006


I just like to add that I think the space shuttle program (orbital) was not the best way to go. We're consequently in the dark ages of space flight.
posted by lunalaguna at 1:04 PM on January 10, 2006


three blind mice alludes to the longstanding feeling among planetary science folk that the vast expense of maintaining Shuttle drained the potential budget for missions to, say, Mars.

It's incorrect to put Hubble up against Shuttle, though, because Hubble was wholly dependent on the continuation of the Shuttle program to survive. In fact, without the final servicing mission, Hubble is likely to lose another gyroscope and become inoperable. The new NASA administrator will only commit to the final servicing mission after two more Shuttle flights, and then only if certain criteria are met to ensure safety, given the mandate now that all Shuttle missions be in the high-altitude, high-latitude orbit of the International Space Station, so that ISS can serve as a lifeboat in the event of a launch-related but non-fatal failure as with Columbia -- or perhaps an inspection station. Hubble is not in any way compatible with the ISS orbit, so the risk is higher.

In any event, Hubble's quality was phenomenal 20 years ago but can now be matched by adaptive optics. The real astronomy geeks are now focusing on the next generation of space telescopes. Hubble has served its purpose and outlasted its rated lifetime, so I'm sanguine about its eventual demise. I'd like to have it continue, but certainly not at the cost of seven more lives.

lunalaguna, you will not find a stronger space booster than I, but a healthy skepticism about the "benefits" of human space flight is good. NASA is in many ways -- cynically -- the ultimate pork program (Texas's DeLay has been one of its biggest boosters). The Bush-inspired "To the Moon, then Mars" vision sounds slightly better than trucking to low orbit a brazillion times, but only slightly, and I have no confidence it is anything but frosting on a drying cake.

alumshubby: You're thinking of Mizar, which is not a true binary -- but an optical illusion ("telescopic binary"). Polaris is, however, a three-star system. Before Hubble, it was known to be a binary, so that isn't really news.
posted by dhartung at 1:23 PM on January 10, 2006


anomie, no problem.
posted by Tullius at 2:10 PM on January 10, 2006


This is a great, lucid lowdown on the ISS-as-shuttle-destination and shuttle-as-way-to-get-there projects:

[...]
The retardant effect the Shuttle has had on technology (like the two decades long freeze in expendable rocket development) outweighs any of its modest initial benefits to materials science, aerodynamics, and rocket design.
[...]
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 2:41 PM on January 10, 2006


lunalaguna - could I add versatile Corning Ware to your list of benefits? I believe it was a 'side effect' of research for nose cone material. It is much less brittle and breakable than Pyrex and can go from freezer to range top burner, oven or microwave.
posted by Cranberry at 3:26 PM on January 10, 2006


Sort of like a Poley Trinity.

I'm sorry, I have a cold.
posted by Decani at 4:16 PM on January 10, 2006


Before Hubble, it was known to be a binary ...

Actually, Polaris has been know to be a triple star from long before Hubble. A and Ab where long ago identified as a spectroscopic binary. Hubble allows the companion to be distinguished visually for the first time.

Mizar is even more interesting. As dhartung pointed out, Mizar appears as an optical, not true, binary with Alcor. This is an interesting naked eye test. But Mizar is also a true binary (Mizar A and Mizar B). And Mizar A and Mizar B are also each spectroscopic binaries. So Mizar actually consists of four stars orbiting each other. Kind of puts the two-body problem to shame.
posted by JackFlash at 5:15 PM on January 10, 2006


Thanks, JackFlash -- I oversimplified.
posted by dhartung at 8:45 PM on January 10, 2006


It's interesting that one of Polaris' stars is so close. Only 2 billion miles. That's about the distance between the sun and Uranus. In comparison, the third star is waaay out of the ballpark.
posted by insomnia_lj at 3:05 AM on January 11, 2006


Just for comparison, Alpha Centauri A and B get as close as 1 billion miles, while Proxima is 1000 times more distant.
posted by dhartung at 2:02 AM on January 12, 2006


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