Cooks’ starring role

Saturday September 21, 2019 Written by Published in Technology
Phil Evans at his observatory in Chile, shot during the installation of his telescope. PHOTO SUPPLIED 19092049 Phil Evans at his observatory in Chile, shot during the installation of his telescope. PHOTO SUPPLIED 19092049

In Rarotonga, Phil Evans doesn’t have a telescope of the size you see at international observatories.

But today’s technology allows him to log in remotely, every day, to his observatory in Chile that he accesses remotely on a daily basis – the culmination of 20 years of stargazing.

 

This month, though, he has a chance to cap off his career in a way he could never have imagined: Evans is the driving force behind an initiative that will allow Cook Islands its own little corner of the heavens.

Resident local astronomers Phil Evans and Iaveta Short, together with Natural Heritage Society Director Gerald McCormack and Cecile Marten of the Cook Islands Voyaging Society, will meet today to discuss the naming of a planet and a star.

The committee was formed in response to a call from the International Astronomical Union for every country in the world to name its own exoplanet—a word that denotes the combination of a planet (of which there are more than 4000 in the Milky Way) and a star.

Beginning on Monday, all members of the public in the Cook Islands are being invited to volunteer a Maori name.

Marten says the Cook Islands Voyaging Society is interested in anything related to the stars, given the intimate connection between traditional voyaging and celestial navigation.

One of the Society’s longer-term goals is to document the Maori names of stars used by local navigators, for the purposes of educating youth.

“Unfortunately Marumaru Atua is already a name of a star,” she observes.

Short, who became involved with stargazing through affiliation with an Astronomical Society in New Zealand, has been observing the night sky all his life, but seriously for about 25 years. He is presently preparing to purchase his third telescope.

For him, this competition marks the beginning of a more involved astronomy-minded community here in the Cook Islands.

“Here you don’t have an Astronomical Society so I’ve been doing my own thing,” he says.

“We never really formed a proper committee because we’re all busy, but this [competition] gave us an opportunity to get going. We hope to make something of it long-term.

“We’d love to get the schools involved. If you get some kids interested, that’s a good start.”

YOU CAN NAME
AN EXOPLANET

Rarotonga’s resident astronomer Phil Evans has been observing the night sky for more than 20 years. He explains the Cook Islands’ opportunity to name a star.

Cook Islanders are being given the chance to name a planet and a star in a nation-wide competition starting on Monday.

The competition is part of the centenary celebrations of the International Astronomical Union and each of the world’s two-hundred or so countries will be able to choose a name for one of the over 4000 planets that astronomers have found around other stars in our Milky Way Galaxy.

The Union is the only organisation that can officially name a star or planet but the names they choose aren’t exactly memorable, unless you are an astronomer and are happy with a name such as HD 221287b.

Can you think of a better name for this star? A Maori name, one that is in some way related to our language or culture? Perhaps any of our traditions, flora, fauna (particularly birds), gods, history, religion or even people – but they have to have been long dead. Birds are a good place to start, given the star we are tasked with naming exists as part of the Tucana constellation, named after the toucan, and adjacent to other constellations named for birds.

You will have your chance during the next four weeks beginning on Monday 23 September.

All you have to do is go to the special web site that has been set up (astrofizz.org) and make an entry on the form that you will find there. You are asked to provide a Maori name for the planet and another for the star. You also need to translate both names into English and say why you chose those names. You can make as many entries as you like as long as you fill in all the answers for each entry.

At the end of the month the 10 best ones will be chosen by our NameExoWorlds Committee and from these a different panel with language and culture specialists will pick three, a winner and two backups. All three names will then go to the IAU for a final judging.

The backups are needed in case another country chooses a name which is too similar to the one we choose.

Planets around other stars are known as exoplanets and the combination of the planet and star is called an exoworld.

Our exoworld consists of a gas giant planet a bit bigger than Jupiter, officially called HD 221287b, and its parent star is HD 221287. Planets are named after their star but with a lower case letter after the star name. The first planet is given the letter ‘b’; the second is ‘c’ and so on. Our star has only one planet (discovered so far).

As you can see HD 221287 is a pretty dull name. We must be able to come up with something much more exciting.

It’s over to you!

Schools all over the country can use their science and culture lessons to talk about this. Anyone with knowledge of our history and traditions. You are all welcome to enter – as many times as you want with different suggestions.

Cook Islands vaka voyagers have always looked to the heavens to guide their journeys. Now they will know that the skies hold a star of their own, recorded by the International Astronomical Union. The final choice and announcement will be made during the week of December 16-21.

The planet is probably made mainly of hydrogen gas with a lot of other gases mixed in. It is like our Solar System planet Jupiter but it is three times heavier. The star is a small yellow-white dwarf star (not to be confused with a white dwarf star) and is in the constellation of Tucana.

It is about the same size as our sun but is not visible to the naked eye. It is, however, easily seen in a small telescope or binoculars. For those who understand such things its coordinates are: RA = 23:31:20.339 Dec = -58:12:35.04.

It is 173 light years away (that’s about 700,000,000,000,000 km) from the earth. If you have an astronomy app for your phone you might be able to see the region of the sky. Tonight it will be due south and 53 degrees up in the sky at midnight.

For more information about exoplanets see www.exoplanets.nasa.gov

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