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SpaceX's 'UFO on a stick' may turn Starlink customers into key assets – Business Insider

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  • In 2020, SpaceX plans to launch 60 Starlink satellites every two weeks, ostensibly to create a functional global internet service by the end of the year.
  • Customers would connect to Starlink using what Musk described on Tuesday as a device that looks like a „UFO on a stick“ and only needs to be plugged in and pointed skyward.
  • Computer scientist Mark Handley previously calculated that Starlink can beat fiber-optic cables, in terms of round trip travel time for user data. However, that was before SpaceX said a key satellite-to-satellite laser technology wouldn’t be ready to launch until the end of 2020.
  • But Handley thinks SpaceX will use the „UFO“ terminals as ground stations – a scheme that could be nearly as fast as laser links, and even faster than lasers alone when used in combination.
  • This suggests Starlink subscribers could become critical parts of a global, high-speed, and resilient mesh network instead of just end users.
  • Sign up for Business Insider’s transportation newsletter, Shifting Gears, to get more stories like this in your inbox.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

SpaceX is racing to launch about 1,400 satellites this year and boot up Starlink, a planet-wide, ultra-high-speed internet service. The rocket company, founded by Elon Musk, may ultimately send up 12,000 or even 42,000 in the coming decade.

To that end, SpaceX on Monday launched a pallet of 60 freshly redesigned Starlink satellites on Monday – adding to 120 experimental spacecraft already in orbit – and plans to pull off similar launches every two weeks.

With anticipation building over Starlink’s debut, company founder Elon Musk explained how future subscribers will connect to the service using a device called a phased-array antenna, which he said in 2015 should cost around $200 each. (Though some industry analysts say such devices today cost about 10 times as much.)

„Looks like a thin, flat, round UFO on a stick. Starlink Terminal has motors to self-adjust optimal angle to view sky,“ Musk tweeted, adding that all a user has to do is plug it in and point it upward. „These instructions work in either order. No training required.“

What Musk did not say is how, exactly, early adopters will actually send and receive data – whether it’s information about financial markets halfway around the world, or streaming video of „The Bachelor“ on a Hulu server farm – using satellites moving around Earth at 17,000 mph, and in a dizzying variety of paths called orbital planes.

But Mark Handley, a computer science professor at University College London, posted a YouTube video on December 20 that models the Starlink network and makes some educated guesses. Handley said he used recent documents from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and statements from both Musk and Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and COO, to arrive at his conclusions.

If Handley’s latest guesswork is correct, each of Musk’s „UFO on a stick“ terminals that users pay to handle their own data could be a secret weapon that helps Starlink get data for countless other subscribers to and from its destination – and do so at speeds that handily beat fiber-optic cables. (SpaceX did not respond to Business Insider’s queries on the matter.)

„This is the most exciting new network we’ve seen in a long time,“ he previously told Business Insider. He added that the project could affect the lives of „potentially everybody.“

Here’s how Handley thinks Starlink might work this year and going forward.


Musk has said grabbing just 1-3% of the global telecommunications market through Starlink could pocket SpaceX tens of billions per year in revenue — much more than it may ever make launching rockets.

Foto: SpaceX founder Elon Musk.sourceDave Mosher/Insider


dSpaceX can launch 60 roughly desk-size, 500-pound satellites at a time into space within the nosecone of its Falcon 9 rocket system.

Foto: SpaceX stuffed a fleet of 60 Starlink internet-providing satellites into the nosecone of a Falcon 9 rocket for launch in May 2019.sourceElon Musk/SpaceX via Twitter

Source: Business Insider


In early 2019, Musk said it will take about 400 satellites to establish „minor“ internet coverage and 800 satellites for „moderate“ or „significant operational“ coverage. The immediate major goal is to deploy about 1,500 satellites about 340 miles (550 kilometers) high.

Foto: An illustration of SpaceX’s planned Starlink satellite orbits around Earth.sourceSpaceX


The internet, in its simplest form, is a series of connected computers. How and where the computers are connected makes a significant difference to many users, though. SpaceX’s gambit with Starlink is make access faster and more widespread, yet less laggy and expensive.

Foto: A router connecting multiple computers to the internet via cables.sourceAssociated Press


A lot of our data is sent in pulses of light through fiber-optic cables. More packets of information can go farther with a stronger signal that way than they could via electrical signals sent through metal wires.

Foto: Fiber-optic cabling.sourceShutterstock

Source: Business Insider


But fiber is fairly expensive and tedious to lay, especially between locations on opposite sides of the Earth.

Foto: Reeltender Mo Laussie watches fiber-optic cable as he helps install the cable unto telephone poles June 21, 2001 in Louisville, CO.sourceMichael Smith/Getty


Even within a country, achieving a direct wired path from one location to another is rare. Relying on ground cables also leaves many regions poorly connected.

Foto: sourceBusiness Insider


Cables have a speed limit, too: Light moves through the vacuum of space about 47% faster than it can through solid fiber-optic glass.

Foto: A prism bends and splits up white light into a rainbow of colors because the speed of light is slower in glass than it is in air.sourceShutterstock

Source: Florida State University


This isn’t an issue for normal browsing or watching TV. But over international distances, Handley previously said, it leads to high latency, or lag. The time delay is especially pronounced in long-distance videoconferencing and voice calls made over the web.

Foto: The president speaks with children over a video conference.sourceCarolyn Kaster/AP


Data beamed over existing satellites is some of the laggiest. That’s because nearly all those spacecraft orbit from 22,236 miles (35,786 kilometers) up, where they can „float“ above one location on Earth. That’s enough distance to cause a more than half-second of lag.

Foto: An illustration of two different geostationary satellites, which orbit about 22,300 miles above Earth’s surface.sourceNASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio; Business Insider

Source: University College London


Handley said that latency matters most to financial institutions. With markets that move billions of dollars in fractions of a second, any delay can lead to big losses over a competitor with a less laggy (and thus more up-to-date) connection to the web.

Foto: High-frequency-trading companies will try almost any new technology to learn about market changes before a competitor.sourceReuters / Brendan McDermid


Shuttling data around the world via satellite — and mostly through the vacuum of space, not glass — should cut that lag while also providing screaming-fast internet service almost anywhere on Earth.

Foto: An illustration of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet constellation in orbit around Earth.sourceSpaceX

Source: Business Insider


SpaceX deploys each flat-packed stack of 60 satellites by very slowly rotating it in microgravity, causing it to spread like „a deck of cards on a table,“ Musk said in 2019.

Foto:

Source: Business Insider


From there, the satellites will use Hall thrusters (or ion engines) to rise to an altitude of about 342 miles (550 kilometers). This will be about 65 times closer to Earth than geostationary satellites — and that much less laggy.

Foto: A 13-kilowatt Hall thruster, or ion engine, being tested at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.sourceNASA


Final Starlink spacecraft will link to four others using lasers. No other internet-providing satellites do this, Handley said, and it’s what would make them special: They can beam data over Earth’s surface at nearly the speed of light, bypassing the limitations of fiber-optics.

Foto: An illustration of Starlink, a fleet or constellation of internet-providing satellites designed by SpaceX. This image shows how each satellite connects to four others with laser beams.sourceMark Handley/University College London

Source: University College London


But for now, none of the Starlink satellites have laser beams. Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and COO, told reporters in October that laser interlinks won’t be working until late 2020 at the soonest.

Foto: Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and COO, in 2017.sourceDia Dipasupil/Getty Images

Source: CNN


Until then, Musk says the company will link them via ground stations. A handful of sizable yet steerable antennas that can track satellites will be used to „talk“ to the satellites.

Foto: Satellite tracking antennas in South Texas.sourceDave Mosher/Business Insider


There are also small user terminals for the customers to connect — the ones Musk he said look like „a UFO on a stick“ or, previously, „a sort of a small- to medium-size pizza.“ (Though he or SpaceX has yet to show a picture of one.)

Foto: Rows of pizza boxes.sourceShutterstock

Source: FCC


That’s small enough to add to a home. „There’s also no reason one of these couldn’t be flat and thin enough to put on the roof of a car,“ Handley said.

Foto: A Tesla Model Y electric car.sourceTesla


Musk said Starlink terminals would also easily fit on ships, airplanes, and other mobile devices, enabling these vehicles to have better broadband connections than what’s available today.

Foto: sourceNAN728/Shutterstock


Musk said just 1,000 satellites are required „for the system to be economically viable.“ He noted that’s „obviously a lot of satellites, but it’s way less than 10,000 or 12,000.“

Foto: A computer scientist’s rendering of SpaceX’s constellation of satellites for Starlink: a scheme to provide global, high-speed, low-latency internet service.sourceMark Handley/University College London


But according to SpaceX’s FCC filings, the company expects to operate 1 million ground stations. Handley thinks the small terminals will not just download and upload one user’s data, but also act as critical nodes before the laser links are ready — turning customers into a kind of global mesh network.

Foto: A computer scientist’s rendering of SpaceX’s constellation of satellites for Starlink: a scheme to provide global, high-speed, low-latency internet service.sourceMark Handley/University College London

Source: FCC


Handley and others previously assumed SpaceX would only use lasers because they took the most direct (and fastest) path through space. But Handley’s new analysis of Starlink’s network suggests turning customers into relays would make the network even faster and more resilient.

Foto: An illustration of Starlink, a fleet or constellation of internet-providing satellites designed by SpaceX. This image shows the shortest path in the network between New York and London.sourceMark Handley/University College London


Without lasers, data could get to and from computers around the world through Starlink by bouncing from satellite to user terminal to satellite and so on in a light-speed daisy-chain.

Foto: A computer scientist’s rendering of SpaceX’s constellation of satellites for Starlink: a scheme to provide global, high-speed, low-latency internet service.sourceMark Handley/University College London


Handley calculated this would significantly beat the speed of the current internet, and even an ideal one made entirely of uninterrupted fiber-optic cable.

Foto: sourceMark Handley/University College London

Source: Mark Handley/University College London


And as more users sign up and plug in their UFO-like terminals, Starlink satellites overhead may have more options for building optimal paths to transmit data.

Foto: An illustration of SpaceX’s constellation of thousands of Starlink satellites to provide global, high-speed, low-latency internet.sourceMark Handley/University College London

Source: Mark Handley/University College London


Customer terminals also solved a problem Handley previously saw with planned laser links: Due to the arrangement of the satellites in space, some connections — like London to Johannesburg — had to go out of their way, causing them to be slower than fiber-optic cables.

Foto: A computer scientist’s rendering of SpaceX’s constellation of satellites for Starlink: a scheme to provide global, high-speed, low-latency internet service.sourceMark Handley/University College London

Source: Mark Handley/University College London


Using terminals alone made the trip much quicker, according to his model.

Foto: A computer scientist’s rendering of SpaceX’s constellation of satellites for Starlink: a scheme to provide global, high-speed, low-latency internet service.sourceMark Handley/University College London

Source: Mark Handley/University College London


Mixing both the laser links and user terminals, though, provided the fastest of any solution to shuttle internet data to and from a location.

Foto: A computer scientist’s rendering of SpaceX’s constellation of satellites for Starlink: a scheme to provide global, high-speed, low-latency internet service.sourceMark Handley/University College London

Source: Mark Handley/University College London


One hurdle SpaceX needs to overcome before laser links are available: Oceans. Though ground stations strategically placed on islands could close the gap. Handley suspects terminals attached to ships would still be needed.

Foto:

Source: Mark Handley/University College London


But even Handley doesn’t see too much of a problem. „Ships aren’t cheap, but they’re not cheaper than rockets. So this is probably doable,“ he said in his video.

Foto: A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches Starlink at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, May 23, 2019.sourceUS Air Force/1st Lt Alex Preisser

Source: Mark Handley/University College London


It might be even cheaper for SpaceX to put ground stations close to fiber-optic cables and use them to bridge the divide, at least until the lasers become available.

Foto: sourceTeleGeography


In any case, the data won’t magically know which path it should take; SpaceX will have to constantly calculate the locations of all its satellites and ground stations. But Handley said he was able to compute that in negligible with his personal computer „with a few devious tricks inspired by how game engines work.“

Foto: A computer scientist’s rendering of SpaceX’s constellation of satellites for Starlink: a scheme to provide global, high-speed, low-latency internet service.sourceMark Handley/University College London

Source: Mark Handley/University College London


Watch Handley’s complete speculative explanation about how Starlink might work below.

Foto:

[embedded content]

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Arctic could see more rain than snow in 30 years, study suggests – Eye on the Arctic

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In this Aug. 2005 file photo, an iceberg melts in Kulusuk, Greenland, near the Arctic Circle. A new report says the Arctic will be dominated by rain, rather than snow, sometime between 2050 and 2080. (John McConnico/AP Photo)

Increased rain detrimental to foraging Arctic mammals like caribou, reindeer, muskox

There could be more rainfall than snow in the Arctic in as little as 30 years because of the world’s changing climate, according to a new study that predicts the transition will happen decades earlier than previously anticipated.

The change is expected to happen sometime between 2050 and 2080, says research led by the University of Manitoba and published in the journal Nature Communications. Previously, the transition to a rain-dominated Arctic was expected to happen somewhere between 2070 and 2090.

Lead author Michelle McCrystall, a postdoctoral fellow at the university’s Centre for Earth Observation Science, said more than 50 per cent of precipitation in the Arctic falling as rain instead of snow will have “global implications” and a “very direct impact” on Indigenous people throughout the Arctic.

The biggest precipitation changes, she added, will happen during the fall. Predominant snowfall and snow precipitation is still expected in the winter months, even by the end of the century.

Some regions will make the transition earlier than others, she explained, based on their temperatures and proximity to the North Pole.

The study’s projections stem from an aggregation of data from around the world.

McCrystall said the 2050 to 2080 range in which the transition could happen reflects the variability of all the data that was used, but the average points to it happening, more specifically, around the year 2070.

Animal starvation

McCrystall said more rain in the Arctic would also lead to more rain-on-snow events — when rain falls onto an existing snowpack and freezes, forming ice layers either on the snow or within it — which would be “very damaging” for foraging mammals like reindeer, caribou and muskox.

Because of that ice, foraging animals will have a harder time reaching the grassland that lies beneath it.

“It can cause a huge starvation and die off in a lot of these populations,” she said.

Mark Serreze, a co-author of the study and the director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., said in a statement “the Arctic is changing so fast that Arctic wildlife might not be able to adapt.

“It’s not just a problem for the reindeer, caribou and muskox, but for the people of the North that depend on them as well.”

The mounted head of a muskox looks out over two Arctic exhibits at the Military Museums in Calgary in Feb. 2016. Foraging animals, like muskox, will have trouble reaching food sources below layers of ice in the snow caused by more frequent rain in the Arctic, said McCrystall. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Kent Moore, a professor of atmospheric physics at the University of Toronto, who is outside of the research team, told CBC News that rain-on-snow events would also cause “incredible” stress on hairy animals like muskox.

“If it rains and then it freezes, then they get a kind of frozen ice on their body, and that can be very, very stressful for them. They can lose heat more rapidly.”

Transition likely to happen in our lifetime, study predicts

Moore said he’s not surprised the Arctic will see more rainfall in the future, but he is surprised when the researchers predict the transition to more rain than snow is going to happen.

“A couple of decades is pretty significant,” he said. “Animals have to adapt quick, but we also have to adapt quicker. And that’s always a challenge, that adaptation,” he said.

Walt Meier, a senior research scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, who is also not one of the study’s authors, said a difference of a few decades means that this transition is more likely to happen in the lifespan of current generations.

“It becomes, for a lot of people, not something that maybe my children or grandchildren will see, but something I may very well live to see,” he said, adding that he, too, was not surprised by the new prediction.

Rising sea levels, thawing permafrost

Meier and McCrystall both said an increase in Arctic rainfall would contribute to rising sea levels, particularly because it will cause more glaciers along the coast of Greenland to fall into the water.

Rain fell on the summit of Greenland — a location where precipitation has previously always fallen as snow or ice — for the first time on record this year.

In this Aug. 2019 file photo, large icebergs float away as the sun rises near Kulusuk, Greenland. McCrystall said warmer temperatures and more rainfall in the Arctic means that more glaciers along the coast of Greenland will fall into the water. (Felipe Dana/The Associated Press)

The rain could also lead to permafrost thaw, said McCrystall.

“With more warming and more rainfall, that kind of percolates through the soil and will allow the soil to warm up,” she said. Permafrost stores carbon, she pointed out, and if it thaws “you’ll get a lot more greenhouse gases that will be emitted into the atmosphere.”

McCrystall said that increase in carbon creates a negative impact, because carbon emissions contribute to the further warming of the atmosphere.

“Changes that happen in the Arctic don’t really stay within the Arctic,” she said.

Though she doesn’t see her research as a call to action, McCrystall wants to see people putting more pressure on politicians to make tangible changes that will have big impacts in the fight against climate change.

The research team, which also included members from University College London, University of Colorado Boulder, University of Lapland and the University of Exeter, said that if the world is able to remain below 1.5 C of global warming, the transition to a rainfall-dominated precipitation might not happen in some Arctic regions.

But, if the world remains on its current trajectory, the transition is likely.

Related stories from around the North: 

CanadaOctober saw ‘extraordinary, record-setting heat’ in parts of Arctic Canada, CBC News

Finland: Cold weather perfect to pioneer electric aviation says Finnair, Yle News

GreenlandGreenland to join Paris climate agreement, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Deep freeze in Arctic Europe sends power prices soaring, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Russia’s Arctic coast warmest since records started says weather service, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Sweden aims to be ‘role model and bridge builder’ on climate change, Radio Sweden

United States: Author Q&A – Welp: Climate Change and Arctic Identities, Eye on the Arctic

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New dinosaur species from Chile had a unique slashing tail – Toronto Star

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Fossils found in Chile are from a strange-looking dog-sized dinosaur species that had a unique slashing tail weapon, scientists reported Wednesday.

Some dinosaurs had spiked tails they could use as stabbing weapons and others had tails with clubs. The new species, described in a study in the journal Nature, has something never seen before on any animal: seven pairs of “blades” laid out sideways like a slicing weapon used by ancient Aztec warriors, said lead author Alex Vargas.

“It’s a really unusual weapon,” said Vargas, a University of Chile paleontologist. “Books on prehistoric animals for kids need to update and put this weird tail in there. … It just looks crazy.”

The plant-eating critter had a combination of traits from different species that initially sent paleontologists down the wrong path. The back end, including its tail weapon, seemed similar to a stegosaurus, so the researchers named it stegouros elengassen.

After Vargas and his team examined the pieces of skull and did five different DNA analyses, they concluded it was only distantly related to the stegosaurus. Instead, it was a rare southern hemisphere member of the tank-like ankylosaur family of dinosaurs. (Though the stegouros name stuck and can be easily confused with the more well-known stegosaurus.)

Vargas called it “the lost family branch of the ankylosaur.“

The fossil is from about 72 million to 75 million years ago and appears to be an adult based on the way bones are fused, Vargas said. It was found with its front end flat on its belly and the back end angled down to a lower level, almost as if caught in quicksand, Vargas said.

From bird-like snout to tail tip, stegouros stretched about six feet (two meters) but would only come up to the thighs of humans, Vargas said.

The tail was probably for defense against large predators, which were also likely turned off by armor-like bones jutting out that made stegouros “chewy,” Vargas said.

Not only is this “a really bizarre tail,” but it is from far southern Chile, “a region that hasn’t yielded these types of animals before,” said Macalester College biologist Kristi Curry Rogers, who wasn’t part of the study.

“We’re just scratching the surface when it comes to a comprehensive understanding of dinosaur diversity,” Rogers said. “Stegourus reminds us that if we look in the right places at the right times, there is so much more still to discover.”

___

Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter at @borenbears.

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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The Comet Leonard, the Christmas Star, and Other Things to See in December’s Night Sky – Lifehacker

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Photo: Ylenia Cancelli (Shutterstock)

There’s a lot going on in the night sky in December, from the spectacular Geminids meteor shower to Venus at its brightest. Here are some of December’s most impressive star-gazing highlights to mark on your calendar.

Venus will be at its brightest on Dec. 3

Venus is December’s planet of the month! An iconoclast and overachiever, Venus is the hottest planet in our solar system (sorry, Mercury), and the only one to spin clockwise. Venus will make its brightest appearance of 2021 (or “greatest illuminated extent,” according to astronomers) on Dec. 3. Look west right after sunset, and you should see the crescent Venus, although you might need binoculars to really check it out. With pressing business in other parts of the universe, Venus will disappear from Earth’s sky on Jan. 9.

Antarctic gets a total solar eclipse on Dec. 4

Our readers in Western Antarctica and sailors in the Ross Sea will be able to check out a total solar eclipse on Dec. 4, with sky-gazers in the rest of Antartica, South Africa, Tasmania, and the South Atlantic being able to see a partial eclipse. For the rest of us, the moon is new (i.e., not visible) so tides will be higher all over the world. Surf’s up, baby.

You can (probably) see Comet Leonard on Dec. 9

If you’ve been dying to check out a comet, may I suggest Comet Leonard? The mornings around Dec. 9 between 3:30 a.m. and dawn are prime viewing hours to see Comet C/2021 A1, also known as “Leonard.” According to Space.com, it will be “one-third of the way up the eastern sky, near the circle of stars that form the head of Serpens Caput (the Snake’s Head).” You might need binoculars to see it, and it might not be there at all (comets are hard to predict), but it’s worth a shot. What else are you gonna do during that time? Sleep?

The Geminids meteor shower peaks on Dec. 14

The Geminids meteor shower is the show-stopping celestial event of December 2021. It runs between Nov. 19 and Dec. 24, but its absolute peak is expected on Dec. 14. You should be able to see tons of meteors in the hours between sunset on Monday the 14th and sunrise on the 15th. At around 2 a.m., up to 120 meteors per minute might be visible. They’ll be all over the sky, but will appear to radiate from right above the stars of Castor and Pollux. These meteors would be even more spectacular without the moon messing things up with its reflected sunlight, but if you wait until it sets at around 3 a.m., more shooting stars should be visible.

You can spy on Crater Copernicus on Dec. 18

The moon crater Copernicus is visible with binoculars any time you can see the moon, but if you want to get really in-depth, check it out in a telescope on Dec. 18. On the night before the full moon, you’ll be able to see Copernicus’s terraced edges, its central peak, and its extensive ejecta blanket outside the crater’s rim. Copernicus is located slightly northwest of the center of the Moon’s Earth-facing hemisphere.

The full “Cold Moon” is coming on Dec. 19

Don’t miss December’s full cold moon on the 19th: Here’s everything you could ever want to know about it. 

Hunker down for the Winter Solstice on Dec. 21

In the Northern Hemisphere, Dec. 21 is the shortest day of the year. The sun is lowest at noon, and the darkness lasts longer than at any other day of the year. The Winter Solstice the best day for vampires who need to get a lot done. The exact moment of the solstice—when the sun reaches its most southernly point in the sky and Winter begins—happens at 15:59 Universal Time. Here’s how to translate Universal time to your local time.

See the little baby Ursids Meteor Shower peak on Dec. 22

This short meteor shower is caused by debris dropped by comet 8P/Tuttle, and is visible between Dec. 13 and 24, but its peak is expected in the early hours of the 22nd. After the moon sets at around midnight, you should be able to see five to ten meteors per hour in the sky. They could come from anywhere, but they will probably seem to radiate from above the Little Dipper.

See the Christmas Star on Dec. 25 (duh)

If you look out your window after midnight on Dec. 25, you should see Sirius, the brightest nighttime star, in the Southern sky. Sometimes called the “Dog Star,” Sirius is a twinkly blue and white ball of fire located a mere 8.6 light years from Earth. It is probably not the Star of Bethlehem that the three wise men from the East followed to Bethlehem—you can’t actually follow a star anywhere—but it’s still a cool star you can see on Christmas night (and other nights).

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