Dazzling New Views of a Familiar Cluster

Article Updated: 23 Dec , 2015

Wow. It’s always amazing to get new views of familiar sky targets. And you always know that a “feast for the eyes” is in store when astronomers turn a world-class instrument towards a familiar celestial object.

Such an image was released this morning from the European Southern Observatory (ESO). Astronomers turned ESO’s 2.2-metre telescope towards Messier 7 in the constellation Scorpius recently, and gave us the star-studded view above.

Also known as NGC 6475, Messier 7 (M7) is an open cluster comprised of over 100 stars located about 800 light years distant. Located in the curved “stinger” of the Scorpion, M7 is a fine binocular object shining at a combined magnitude of about +3.3. M7 is physically about 25 light years across and appears about 80 arc minutes – almost the span of three Full Moons – in diameter from our Earthly vantage point.

One of the most prominent open clusters in the sky, M7 lies roughly in the direction of the galactic center in the nearby astronomical constellation of Sagittarius. When you’re looking towards  M7 and the tail of Scorpius you’re looking just south of the galactic plane in the direction of the dusty core of our galaxy. The ESO image reveals the shining jewels of the cluster embedded against the more distant starry background.

Messier 7 is middle-aged as open clusters go, at 200 million years old. Of course, that’s still young for the individual stars themselves, which are just venturing out into the galaxy. The cluster will lose about 10% of its stellar population early on, as more massive stars live their lives fast and die young as supernovae. Our own solar system may have been witness to such nearby cataclysms as it left its unknown “birth cluster” early in its life.

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Other stars in Messier 7 will eventually mature, “join the galactic car pool” in the main sequence as they disperse about the plane of the galaxy.

But beyond just providing a pretty picture, studying a cluster such as Messier 7 is crucial to our understanding stellar evolution. All of the stars in Messier 7 were “born” roughly around the same time, giving researchers a snapshot and a chance to contrast and compare how stars mature over there lives. Each open cluster also has a unique spectral “fingerprint,” a chemical marker that can even be used to identify the pedigree of a star.

For example, there’s controversy that the open cluster Messier 67 may actually be the birth place of our Sun. It is interesting to note that the spectra of stars in this cluster do bear a striking resemblance in terms of metallicity percentage to Sol. Remember, metals in astronomer-speak is any element beyond hydrogen and helium. A chief objection to the Messier 67 “birth-place hypothesis” is the high orbital inclination of the open cluster about the core of our galaxy: our Sun would have had to have undergone a series of improbable stellar encounters to have ended up its current sedate quarter of a billion year orbit about the Milky Way galaxy.

Still, this highlights the value of studying clusters such as Messier 6. It’s also interesting to note that there’s also data in what you can’t see in the above image – dark gaps are thought to be dust lanes and globules in the foreground. Though there is some thought that this dust is debris that may also be related to the cluster and may give us clues as to its overall rotation, its far more likely that these sorts of “dark spirals” related to the cluster have long since dispersed. M7 has completed about one full orbit about the Milky Way since its formation.

Another famous binocular object, the open cluster Messier 6 (M6) also known as the Butterfly Cluster lies nearby. Messier 7 also holds the distinction as being the southernmost object in Messier’s catalog. Compiled from Parisian latitudes, Charles Messier entirely missed southern wonders such as Omega Centauri in his collection of deep sky objects that were not to be mistaken for comets. We also always thought it curious that he included such obvious “non-comets” such as the Pleiades, but missed fine northern sky objects as the Double Cluster in the northern constellation Perseus.

Finding Messier 6: the view from latitude 30 degrees north before dawn in mid-February. Credit: Stellarium.

Finding Messier 6: the view from latitude 30 degrees north before dawn in mid-February. Credit: Stellarium.

Messier 7 is also sometimes called Ptolemy’s Cluster after astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, who first described it in 130 A.D. as the “nebula following the sting of Scorpius.” The season for hunting all of Messier’s objects in an all night marathon is coming right up in March, and Messier 7 is one of the last targets on the list, hanging high due south in the early morning sky.

Interested in catching how Messier 7 will evolve, or might look like up close?  Check out Messier 45 (the Pleiades) and the V-shaped Hyades high in the skies in the constellation Taurus at dusk to see what’s in store as Messier 7 disperses, as well as the Ursa Major Moving Group.

And be sure to enjoy the fine view today of Messier 7 from the ESO!

Got pics of Messier 7 or any other deep sky objects? Send ’em, in to Universe Today!

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