Closer to the Heart – 47 Tucanae

by Tammy Plotner on May 19, 2008

47 Tucanae by Don GoldmanThose huge, gravitationally bound balls of stars know as globular clusters aren’t without a heart. Containing a thick concentration of 10,000 to more than a million stars in a region spanning just 10 to 30 light-years, globular clusters are more akin to seething masses of suns where the lightweights head for the outer edges while the giants collect in the core. What causes this process? Do globular clusters really have a way of getting some stars closer to the heart?

What you see here is 47 Tucanae, the second largest globular cluster in the Milky Way’s busy galactic halo. As its name “47 Tucanae” implies, its core was first cataloged as a star and numbered the 47th in Tucana the Toucan – but not for long. On September 14, 1751 a French astronomer named Nicholas Louis de Lacaille was the first to discover its true nature with a half inch diameter spy glass and cataloged it as nebulous object. Next to observe and catalog it were James Dunlop in 1826, and John Herschel in 1834 when it became New General Catalog (NGC) 104.

At home some 13,400 to 16,000 light years away from our Earth, this inconceivably dense concentration of at least a million stars spans 120 light years at the outside, yet at its heart is more than 15,000 individual stars that are packed so densely that you couldn’t fit our solar system between them. Believed to have all been born about the same time from the same cloud of gas, globular clusters like 47 Tucanae are a wonderful study of how stars evolve and interact.

With such busy conditions, it only stands to reason that stellar collisions have occurred at one time or another and 47 Tucanae is no exception. In the core, 23 unusually hot and bright stars called blue stragglers have been identified – the double massive result of two stars bumping into one another. Due to the associated gravitational pull, heavier stars slow down and sink to the cluster’s core, while lighter stars pick up speed and head for the outer edges. The more often collisions happen the more dramatic the results – pushing the smaller stars ever faster towards the periphery and creating exotic objects.

What no earthly photo can ever show is that 47 Tucanae contains at least twenty millisecond pulsars – better known as neutron stars. Can you imagine a sun that rotates on its axis a few hundreds to one thousand times a second? Just imagine the power. According to scientists, such peculiar objects are generally thought to have a companion from which they receive matter. Close interacting binaries and bright cataclysmic binaries… dwarf novae and nova-like variable candidates…. They all make their home here closer to the heart.

This incredible image of 47 Tucanae was done by Don Goldman of Macedon Ranges Obervatory


Tammy is a professional astronomy author, President Emeritus of Warren Rupp Observatory and retired Astronomical League Executive Secretary. She’s received a vast number of astronomy achievement and observing awards, including the Great Lakes Astronomy Achievement Award, RG Wright Service Award and the first woman astronomer to achieve Comet Hunter's Gold Status.

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