Newbury Weeky News monthly column

Every month, our Vice Chair Tony Hersh writes a popular column for the Newbury Weekly News. From now on, these can be found on this page


In the winter the northern hemisphere of Earth is tilted away from the Sun (which is why it is colder) and towards the Moon (so the Moon is highest in the sky and brighter).  The famous Geminid meteor shower is definitely worth a look on the nights of 14th and 15th December in the south around midnight originating above the Constellation of Orion.  The Moon is about half lit on these nights so won’t disrupt viewing too much.    Often these meteors are bright and relatively slow moving across the sky and we can expect to see perhaps one every few minutes if we are lucky.  Have a look at Betelgeuse, the reddish star in the top left shoulder of Orion.   This star is a red giant 650 light years from Earth that dimmed suddenly last year making some Astronomers believe it was about to explode (go supernova).   If it did it would suddenly be visible day and night before fading away and it is certainly tipped as one of the most likely nearby stars to explode.  However, very recent data shows that changes have slowed and the dimming may be caused by a massive release of dust into the star’s atmosphere rather than its imminent explosion.  

Regarding planets Saturn will be visible just to the right of the Moon on 18th December and Jupiter can be spotted just to the right of the Moon around 5pm on 22nd of December.


Topic of The Month

Astronomers are adding knowledge to the question of how life started on Earth.   A popular theory is that meteorites hitting Earth had a role because they have been shown previously to contain water and a variety of chemicals needed for life.   However the problem until recently had been that the composition of meteorites which had previously landed on Earth might have been contaminated from the interaction of meteors with the Earth’s atmosphere or from the surface of Earth.  A report was published recently of a sample of a distant asteroid taken by Japan’s Hayabusa2 spacecraft which was delivered to Earth in a sealed capsule so we can be sure it wasn’t contaminated.  Analysis found that asteroid contained a surprising range of different chemicals and biologically important molecules including a variety of amino acids, amines and carboxylic acids which are found in proteins, vitamin B3 and Uracil, one of the four key nucleobases.   Nucleobases are nitrogen containing compounds that make up RNA, which is a molecule present in all living cells and is similar to DNA.   What is extraordinary is that so many complicated molecules had formed on the surface of the asteroid which is exposed to the terrifically cold and high radiation environment of space.  It seems quite possible given the vast numbers of pieces of asteroids and meteors hitting planets over billions of years that some will hit planets like Earth which have conditions to take these molecules and use them in the development of life.   It might also mean that life on other planets could be similar to life on Earth if they developed from a similar starting point.