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Time to see Mira the Wonderful

Mira, in Cetus the Whale, varies in brightness over about 11 months. In late December 2017, it might be near its peak brightness, easily bright enough to be viewed with the eye alone.

Mira, from NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer

The star Mira has a comet-like tail, discovered in 2007. The tail stretches 13 light-years in space. Image via NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer.

The star Omicron Ceti – proper name Mira and known to early astronomers as Mira the Wonderful – lies 420 light-years away in the constellation Cetus the Whale. It’s in an unremarkable patch of the night sky along the celestial equator, easily visible from the entire Earth, well to the west in our sky of the hard-to-miss constellation Orion the Hunter. Mira is visible to the unaided eye – except when it isn’t, which is most of the time. And that’s why it earned the name wonderful, in the sense of arousing wonder.

Today we know this star varies in brightness. Its changes happen on a regular schedule of about 11 months. Mira’s last brightness peak was in late January 2017. Its next brightness peak was scheduled for late December 2017, and indeed – according to recent observations from the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) – Mira is now easily bright enough to be viewed with the eye alone.

At this writing, the estimates for Mira’s stellar magnitude, or brightness, are ranging up to about magnitude +3.6. That’s in contrast to Polaris, for example – the legendary North Star – whose magnitude holds steady at nearly +2. In other words, Mira isn’t as bright as Polaris now, but it’s easily visible to the eye.

Mira might get brighter in the coming days. How bright Mira will become at this current peak isn’t predictable!

You should be able to spot Mira's constellation, Cetus, during the evening hours.  Mira won't be visible, though.  Its next brightness peak will come in May, 2015.

You can spot Mira’s constellation, Cetus, during the evening hours. Even at its brightest, Mira isn’t one of our sky’s brightest stars. But it’s a super interesting star to come to know and to follow.

Throughout the centuries, Mira has sometimes been as bright as 2nd magnitude (approaching the noticeability of Polaris, say, or the stars of the Big Dipper), but it usually peaks at about magnitude +3.5. In other words, it might now be about as bright as it’ll get for this brightness peak.

That brightness would place Mira below the brightness of other stars in Cetus.

Mira’s unusual fluctuations were known to modern astronomers as far back as at least the late 16th century. In 1662, German-Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius named it Mira (meaning wonderful or astonishing in Latin). At its dimmest, Mira falls to 10th magnitude, below the visibility limit of modest binoculars. That’s an overall brightness change of more than 1,500 times. Astonishing, indeed!

Mira varies because it’s past its prime. It has exhausted most of its hydrogen fuel and puffed up to become a red giant. The last gasps of its stellar furnace make the star pulsate and throw off its outer layers. Eventually, most of it will be gone, leaving behind a shell of gas called a planetary nebula that will surround the stellar cinder called a white dwarf.

View larger. | This is what astronomers call a light curve, in this case for the star Mira over the past 2 years, approximately early 2016 to late December 2017. The horizontal axis is time; the vertical axis is Mira’s observed magnitude or brightness. This light curve is made of 1,635 observations of this star, submitted to the AAVSO. You can see the star gets brighter and then fainter as it goes through its regular, 11-month cycle. Light curve via the AAVSO.

As modern astronomers study the star, Mira continues to amaze. In 2007, observations by a satellite viewing in ultraviolet light discovered that Mira has a luminous tail of gas more than a dozen light-years long. This is the material that Mira has shed, leaving it behind as it speeds through the galaxy at some 80 miles per second (130 km per second) – very speedy for a star! The invisible tail spans about 2 degrees in the sky, about four times the diameter of a full moon. See the image at the top of this post.

Bottom line: The star Omicron Ceti – aka Mira – in the constellation Cetus varies in brightness regularly, over about 11 months. In late December 2017, the star might be near its peak brightness. It’s easily bright enough to be viewed with the eye alone.

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