How Far Away is Your Star?

It Traveled How Long?

Distant stars as seen by Hubble Space Telescope.
Distant stars as seen by Hubble Space Telescope.

Want a unique thing to slip into a friend or loved one’s next birthday card?  Try for a birthday star!

The concept of a birthday star isn’t a new one — but it’s a cool one, nonetheless.  In 1996, I explored the idea in a planetarium show called Sky Quest that we created for the Smithsonian Institution’s Einstein Planetarium, where we have a young girl looking at her birthday star. It turns out to be Sirius, almost 9 light-years away,  and she’s almost 9 years old.  And, a planetarium colleague of ours came up with a birthday stars book some years ago, telling kids how to find the star whose light left on its journey toward Earth on the day of their birth. It’s something you can do if you have access to star charts and reasonably accurate distances to stars — which means it’s an astronomer’s take on a unique birthday gift.  Not everybody can get their hands on the most correct star positions and distances (usually taken from the Hipparcos Catalog, the Yale Bright Star Catalog, and the Gliese Catalog — all information that is pretty much an astronomer’s basic tool, but isn’t too well known to the general public.

Well, if you’ve ever wondered what star might be YOUR birthday star and you don’t happen to have star charts handy, the folks at European Southern Observatory have put up a “Birthday Stars” calculator on their web page. Input a birth date and voila!  It generates a star chart and shows you where your birthday star is.  You can print it out and you can even visit your star’s coordinates in GoogleEarth.

I think this is a VERY clever way to get folks interested in astronomy — and it’s free. It does a complete end run around those companies that charge you money to “name” a star (like anybody’s gonna take THAT seriously) and then send you a photocopied page out of an old star atlas and tell you that some dot on the page that could be a toner cartridge accident is really “your” star.

So, run over there and check it out. Find out what star is exactly the same number of light-years away as your age.  I dare ya…

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