Saturday, May 14, 2016

Ross 128

Ross 128

Also known as FL Virginis, FL Vir, GCTP 2730, LHS 315, GJ 447,
G 010-050, Vyssotsky 286, LTT 13240, LFT 852 and HIP 57548
     Once again we have the opportunity to reflect on one of the unsung greats of astronomy, as well as a fellow Marylander, Frank Elmore Ross (1874-1960).  We will eventually come across no less than three entries from Ross’s catalog of stars before we’ve finished our tour of the solar neighborhood.

     Frank Elmore Ross … allow me to digress a bit at this point. I just love that name. It bespeaks of a time so close in years to our own, and yet in so many ways more distant from us than the stars we are searching out in this book. No one today could have a name like that! It belongs to a quieter era than our own – more rural, much slower, and a lot darker at night.  It was an era in which the likes of Clyde Tombaugh could spend his youth on a Kansas farm cobbling together homemade telescopes from discarded agricultural equipment, an era in which visitors to Lowell Observatory arrived via dirt trails on horseback, in which astronomers could build a working observatory in downtown Los Angeles and not worry about light pollution. An era in which Edmond Hamilton (another great name!) could walk to school under the unobstructed light of the winter Milky Way, dreaming up the great space operas he would one day become so famous for.

     And it required an era like that for the likes of Frank Elmore Ross to flourish. Ross would come to a problem and worry it like a dog with a bone for as long as it took, until he had come to a solution. It took patience and perseverance like Ross’s to work out at long last a problem that had eluded astronomers as great as William Herschel, William Parsons, and many others – the large scale structure of our own galaxy, the Milky Way.  Like many astronomers of his time, Ross not only collected his own data – he actually dreamed up, designed, and built the specialized equipment needed for the job. In his case, it was a wide-angle astronomical camera that would give highly corrected star images over a field 20ยบ across, uniquely designed telescope lenses, and completely new techniques of film development that allowed for truly magnificent wide field images of star fields and nebulae. In 1927-31, Ross photographed the entire sky visible from the northern hemisphere with unprecedented clarity and detail, and with Mary R. Calvert (niece of E.E. Barnard, and herself an astronomer at Yerkes Observatory) published the results in 1934 in the magisterial Atlas of the Milky Way. In it for the first time ever could be found a reasonably faithful-to-reality description of the overall size, shape, and components of the Milky Way, with our own solar system shown in roughly the correct place. A byproduct of this painstaking work was his catalog of stars of interest, which now bears his name. The red dwarf flare star Ross 128 is of course the 128th entry in that catalog.

     Sometimes the sheer ordinariness of an object becomes interesting in itself. That is certainly the case with Ross 128. If we want to observe a “typical” star, we could hardly do better. This is an important point to keep in mind, since we so often refer to our own Sun as an ordinary, unexceptional star, when nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, perhaps as many as three out of every four stars in the universe resemble Ross 128 in nearly every respect, whereas the Sun turns out to be an abnormally massive, exceptionally bright star by universal standards.

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