ESO 1. Science

Topic 1.  Reading: Astronomers Await a Nova
The Star of Bethlehem

At this time of year it seems almost traditional for stargazers to ponder the age-old question of the origin of the Star of Bethlehem. The Star's appearance some 2,000 years ago is quite possibly one of the best-known celestial events in all of recorded history.

The topic has universal fascination, and is why Christmas Star shows still play to packed planetarium houses.

Perhaps the simplest answer that can be offered is that the Star might have been a nova: a new star suddenly blazing forth where no star had previously been seen. While for the most part such objects are really dying stars having a final fling of glory before descending the long road to ultimate extinction, there are some stars that go through such contortions more than once.

One such star is long overdue to pop and could do so at anytime.


The star in question is T Pyxidis, in the constellation of Pyxis, the Mariner's Compass. T Pyxidis is about 6,000 light years away and belongs to a small and seemingly exclusive group of cataclysmic variable stars called recurrent novae (NR). Astronomers have been patiently waiting for T Pyxidis's next outburst for more than 20 years.

Normally this star shines at magnitude 14: that's about a thousand times dimmer than the faintest star that can be perceived by most human eyes on a dark, clear night. But on five occasions, in 1890, 1902, 1920, 1944 and 1967, this star brightened dramatically to magnitudes between 6.5 and 7 (a 1,000-fold increase in brightness in the most extreme case) making T Pyxidis just bright enough to be glimpsed without any optical aid. These eruptions came at an average of just over 19 years apart, and the longest stretch of time between them was 24 years.

But this month marks 40 years since the last outburst.

It was back on Dec. 7, 1966 that the most recent eruption was first noticed by New Zealand amateur astronomer, Albert Jones. The star had more than doubled in brightness to magnitude 12.9. Just two nights later it was almost four magnitudes brighter and after a month it was glowing at magnitude 6.3 before slowly fading back to normal.

Nobody knows exactly why T Pyxidis has remained quiet for so long, but the general consensus is that it may have accumulated an extra-thick coating of nuclear fuel on its surface over these past 20 years, which would make it appear extra bright when it finally blows its next surge of gaseous debris out into space.

Who knows? That night could be tonight!

Key vocabulary
  • Stargazer.
  • Outburst.
Analyse the text
  • What are astronomers expecting to happen and to what?
  • What is a nova?
Topic 8.  Do it yourself: Making a Plant Collection
[Adapted from The University of Arizona]
What is it?

When scientists preserve a specimen of a plant (or part of a plant) they usually flatten it, dry it, and mount it on special paper. Preserved in this way the plant specimen can be stored for many years without falling apart.

Before you start

Before collecting plants in the wild, you should understand the legal issues of the ownership of the land and its resources, and the ethical issues of possible damage to wild plant populations and to endangered species. It is legal to collect plants only with the permission of the owner of the property on which they are found.

What to collect

Picking a few leaves or flowers usually does not give a representative picture of a plant. Pieces of specimen plant material need to be large enough to show the characteristics of normal growth and development. Taking a branch, stem or even the entire plant may be required to get a good specimen. If the plant is small, take the whole thing, roots and all, or even several of them. If large, get a branch about 25 cm long, with leaves, flowers, and fruits, if possible. A "sterile" specimen (one with leaves only) may be impossible to identify. Even an old empty seed capsule can be helpful if that's all you can find.

Information needed

The date the plant was collected and the location as exactly as possible. Record anything that the specimen won't show, for example, the size of the plant, flower colour, whether the plant is woody or not, etc. Note what kind of a place the plant was found, e.g., in gravel at stream edge, in shade under live oaks, in a sidewalk crack…

How to press a plant

Place the specimens between newspaper sheets and write the name of the species alongside. Alternatively, you can separate the specimens with corrugated cardboard (for air circulation) and blotter paper or paper towels to absorb moisture. Arrange the plant so that all parts show (for example, don't put the flowers between layers of leaves). Place the stack between boards and strap them tightly or place a heavy weight on top (such as a pile of heavy books). Put the stack where there is good air circulation, but not too much heat: you don't want to cook them.

Examine the plants daily and change newspapers or blotters when they become too wet. Remove plants from the stack when they are dry. You can kill insects in dried plant specimens by freezing them for three or four days, and keep them pest-free in a tightly sealed plastic bag.

The herbarium

Once the plants are dry enough, stick each specimen in a cardboard folder. Label them writing their Latin (scientific) and English names, along with all the other data that you previously recorded (collection date and place, description of the specimen...).

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