Want a perspective on what flying through space might actually look like? Here’s one project to give you an idea. Working on the knowledge that radio waves travel at the speed of light, this simulation shows you the local neighbourhood near Earth (excluding exoplanets) up to the limit of the first Earth radio broadcasts; up to 110 years ago (as of 2015).
Things I learned from this:
- In general, stars don’t float randomly by themselves. They appear in clusters. We’re part of a pretty little cluster of mostly much tinier, dimmer stars than our own, that might look like the Pleiades with a red-shift in someone else’s perspective.
- We can infer that most of the stars near us are smaller/dimmer than our own because most of them have alpha-numeric names (more on that in a minute). Also, stars progress from red to orange to yellow to white to blue in terms of brightness and most of the stars around us are more orange than we are.
- Every once in a while you do get singular stars just floating in a void, but it’s the exception, not the rule.
- There are two nebulae relatively near to us. One’s about 40 light years away and the other is about 80 light years away. Each is about 10 light years across.
- The oldest stars we know about have proper names. Those tend to be the brightest from our perspective and are typically the ones visible with the naked eye. Most such names are derived from the Arabic language. You’ll see relatively few of them in our local neighbourhood (Sirius, Fomalhaut, Pollux, etc.)
- Sometimes stars are named for astronomers or the people who discovered them. You’ll see a couple of those in this simulation. One of them, Barnard’s Star, which you’ll see right after the Centauri stars that are our closest neighbours, blasted right through the edge of our solar system only 70,000 years ago! Talk about a near-miss!
- Some stars are catalogued. The Bayer Designation names stars by a lower case Greek letter generally representing its corresponding number, plus the constellation it appears in. (ie. Sigma Sagittarii). Once all 26 Greek letters have been assigned, letters of the Arabic-derived alphabet are used (ie. G Scorpii). Sometimes when concurrent stars were discovered (like, say the smaller star in the Alpha Centauri binary) it was designated with a superscript. The Flamsteed Designation is used when no Bayer Designation exists or when the Bayer designation uses numeric superscripts, because it’s less awkward. (ie. 61 Cygni). These stars are usually visible with a decent telescope.
- The most recently discovered stars, visible with ultra high resolution or space telescopes and tracked by computers, are named with an alpha-numeric designation based on their position in the sky. Over 990 million such objects exist.
- Special cases: Pulsars are designated by the prefix PSR, with a series of hyphenated numbers in which the first indicates its right ascension and the second its degree of inclination. Supernovae are designated by the prefix SN, plus the year they were discovered in, and if there was more than one, a letter indicating the order of discovery (ie. SN 1987A.) A few supernovae are known by the year they occurred in (ie. SN 1604, also known as Kepler’s Star). Novae are usually given a name according to the naming convention of the General Catalogue of Variable Stars, which includes a number or letter designation and the constellation it’s from (ie. V841 Ophiuchi, SZ Persei, T Bootis.)
Here’s a preview to show you what it looks like: you can find the simulation itself at Lightyear.fm. Note that if you hover your cursor over each celestial body (save the Earth, the Moon and the Sun) it will tell you what it is and how far away from Earth it is. Enjoy the simulation!