Article Updated: 24 Dec , 2015


Cassiopeia is a stellar northern constellation which belongs to Ptolemy’s 48 original constellations and endured as one of the 88 modern constellations. This zig-zag shaped circumpolar asterism consists of 5 primary stars (2 of which are the most luminous in the Milky Way Galaxy) and 53 Bayer/Flamsteed designated stars. It is bordered by Camelopardalis, Cepheus, Lacerta, Andromeda and Perseus. Cassiopeia constellation is visible at latitudes between +90° and ?20° and is best seen during the month of November.

In mythology, Queen Cassiopeia, wife of King Cepheus of the mythological Phoenician realm of Ethiopia, was beautiful but also arrogant and vain; these latter two characteristics led to her downfall.
Her name in Greek means “she whose words excel”, but her boast that both she and her daughter Andromeda were more beautiful than all the Nereids, the nymph-daughters of the sea god Nereus brought the wrath of Poseidon, ruling god of the sea, upon the kingdom of Ethiopia. Accounts differ as to whether Poseidon decided to flood the whole country or direct the sea monster Cetus to destroy it. In either case, trying to save their kingdom, Cepheus and Cassiopeia consulted a wise oracle, who told them that the only way to appease the sea gods was to sacrifice their daughter. Accordingly, Andromeda was chained to a rock at the sea’s edge and left there to helplessly await her fate at the hands of Cetus. But the hero Perseus arrived in time, saved Andromeda, and ultimately became her husband. Since Poseidon thought that Cassiopeia should not escape punishment, he placed her in the heavens in such a position that, as she circles the celestial pole, she is upside-down for half the time.

Before we begin deep sky hunting with either binoculars or a telescope, let’s begin by familiarizing ourselves with Cassiopeia’s primary stars. Since the constellation is circumpolar, it is necessary to understand where each star is to find things! Begin first in line with the brightest star, Beta. It has the traditional name Caph and is a yellow-white F-type giant with a mean apparent magnitude of +2.28. It is classified as a Delta Scuti type variable star and its brightness varies from magnitude +2.25 to +2.31 with a period of 2.5 hours. Now move along the line to the next bright star – Alpha. Its name is Schedar and its an orange giant (spectral type K0 IIIa), a type of star cooler but much brighter than our Sun. In visible light only, it is well over 500 times brighter than the Sun. According to the Hipparcos astrometrical satellite, distance to the star is about 230 light years (or 70 parsecs). Schedar has been sometimes classified as a variable star, but no variability has been detected since the 19th century. Also, three companions to the star have been listed in the Washington Double Star Catalog, but it seems that all of them are just line-of-sight optical components.

Continue up the line for Eta, marked by the N shape and take a look in a telescope. Eta Cassiopeiae’s name is Achird and its a multiple is a star system 19.4 light years away from Earth. The primary star in the ? Cassiopeiae system is a yellow dwarf (main sequence star) of spectral type G0V, putting it in the same spectral class as our Sun, which is of spectral type G2V. It therefore resembles what our Sun might look like if we were to observe it from ? Cassiopeiae. The star is of apparent magnitude 3.45. The star has a cooler and dimmer (magnitude 7.51) orange dwarf companion of spectral type K7V. The system is an RS Canum Venaticorum type variable star and its brightness varies by 0.05 magnitudes. Based on an estimated semi major axis of 12? and a parallax of 0.168?, the two stars are separated by an average distance of 71 AU, where an AU is the average distance between the Sun and the Earth. However, the large orbital eccentricity of 0.497 means that their periapsis, or closest approach, is as small as 36 AU. For comparison, the semi-major axis of Neptune is 30 AU. There are six dimmer optical components listed in the Washington Double Star Catalog. However, none of them are related to the Eta Cassiopeiae system and are in reality more distant stars.

The next star in line towards the pole is Gamma, marked by the Y shape. Gamma Cassiopeiae doesn’t have a proper name, but American astronaut Gus Grissom nicknamed it “Navi” since it was an easily identifiable navigational reference point during space missions. The apparent magnitude of this star was +2.2 in 1937, +3.4 in 1940, +2.9 in 1949, +2.7 in 1965 and now it is +2.15. At maximum intensity, ? Cassiopeiae outshines both ? Cassiopeiae (magnitude +2.25) and ? Cassiopeiae (magnitude +2.3).

This is a rapidly spinning star that bulges outward along the equator. When combined with the high luminosity, the result is mass loss that forms a disk around the star. The emissions and brightness variations are apparently caused by this “decretion” disk.

Gamma Cassiopeiae is a spectroscopic binary with an orbital period of about 204 days and an eccentricity alternately reported as 0.26 and “near zero.” The mass of the companion is believed to be about that of our Sun (Harmanec et al. 2000, Miroschnichenko et al. 2002)

Gamma Cas is also the prototype of a small group of stellar sources of X-ray radiation that is about 10 times higher that emitted from other B or Be stars, which shows very short term and long-term cycles. The character of the X-ray spectrum is be “thermal” and is possibly emitted from plasmas of temperatures up to least ten million kelvins. Historically it has been held the these X-rays might be excited by matter originating from the star, from a hot wind or a disk around the star, accreting onto the surface of a degenerate companion, such as a white dwarf or neutron star It is now realized that there are interpretational difficulties with either of these pictures. For example, it is not clear that enough matter can be accreted by the white dwarf at the distance of the secondary star (whose nature is not known), implied by the orbital period, is sufficient to power the X-rays (nearly 1033 erg/s or 100 YW). A neutron star could easily power this X-ray flux, but X-ray emission from neutron stars is known to be nonthermal, and thus in apparent variance with the spectral properties. Recent evidence suggests that the X-rays may be associated with the Be star itself or in some complex interaction between the star and surrounding decretion disk. One line of evidence is that the X-ray production is known to vary on both short and long time scales with respect to various UV line and continuum diagnostics associated with a B star or with circumstellar matter close to the star (see Smith and Robinson 1999, Cranmer et al. 2000). Moreover, the X-ray emissions exhibit long-term cycles that correlate with the visible wavelength light curves (Smith et al. 2006). One intriguing property is that gamma cas exhibits characteristics consistent with a strong, disordered field (although no field can be measured directly by zeeman techniques because of its broad spectral lines). This inference comes from a coherent signature giving rise to robust period of 1.21 days suggesting a rooted magnetic field on its surface. The star’s UV and optical spectral lines also show ripples moving from blue to red over several hours, which is indicative of clouds of matter frozen over the star’s surface by strong magnetic fields. This evidence suggests that a magnetic field from the star interacting with the decretion disk are responsible for the X-rays. A disk dynamo has been advanced as a mechanism to explain the modulation of the X-rays (Robinson et al. 2002). However, difficulties remain with this mechanism, among which is that there are no disk dynamos are known to exist in other stars, rendering their behavior somewhat speculative. Gamma Cassiopeiae is also a visual double star system, with the designation of ADS782AB.

Now move over to Delta Cassiopeiae, the figure 8. It’s traditional name is Ruchbah, the “knee”. Delta Cassiopeiae is an eclipsing binary with a period of 759 days. Its apparent magnitude varies between +2.68 mag and +2.74 with a period of 759 days. It is of spectral class A3, and is approximately 99 light years from Earth. Last in line on the end is Epsilon, marked with the backward 3. Epsilon Cassiopeiae’s tradition name is Segin. It is approximately 441 light years from Earth. It has an apparent magnitude of +3.38 and is a single, blue-white B-type giant with a luminosity 720 times that of the Sun. Now that you know the primary stars… Are you ready to dance?

Cassiopeia Deep Sky Chart

Cassiopeia Deep Sky Chart

First let’s begin by observing Messier 52. This one’s easiest found first in binoculars by starting at Beta, hopping to Alpha as one step and continuing the same distance and trajectory as the next step. M52 (NGC 7654) is a fine open cluster located in a rich Milky Way field. The brightest main sequence star of this cluster is of mag 11.0 and spectral type B7. Two yellow giants are brighter: The brightest is of spectral type F9 and mag 7.77, the other of type G8 and mag 8.22. Amateurs can see M52 as a nebulous patch in good binoculars or finder scopes. In 4-inch telescopes, it appears as a fine, rich compressed cluster of faint stars, often described as of fan or “V” shape; the bright yellow star is to the SW edge. John Mallas noted “a needle-shaped inner region inside a half-circle.” M52 is one of the original discoveries of Charles Messier, who cataloged it on September 7, 1774 when the comet of that year came close to it.

For larger telescopes, situated about 35′ southwest of M52 is the Bubble Nebula NGC 7635, a diffuse nebula which appears as a large, faint and diffuse oval, about 3.5×3′ around the 7th-mag star HD 220057 of spectral type B2 IV. It is difficult to see because of its low surface brightness. Just immediately south of M52 is the little conspicuous open cluster Czernik 43 (Cz 43).

Now let’s find Messier 103 by returning to Delta Cassiopeiae. In binoculars, M103 is easy to find and identify, and well visible as a nebulous fan-shaped patch. Mallas states that a 10×40 finder resolves the cluster into stars; however, this is so only under very good viewing conditions. The object is not so easy to identify in telescopes because it is quite loose and poor, and may be confused with star groups or clusters in the vicinity. But telescopes show many fainter member stars. M103 is one of the more remote open clusters in Messier’s catalog, at about 8,000 light years.

While you are there, enjoy the other small open clusters that are equally outstanding in a telescope, such as NGC 659, NGC 663 and NGC 654. But, for a real star party treat, take the time to go back south and look up galactic star cluster NGC 457. It contains nearly one hundred stars and lies over 9,000 light years away from the Sun. The cluster is sometimes referred by amateur astronomers as the Owl Cluster, or the ET Cluster, due to its resemblance to the movie character and it is always guaranteed to make you smile!

For those looking for a more spectacular treat, look no further than NGC 7789. NGC 7789 is rich galactic star cluster that was discovered by Caroline Herschel in 1783. Her brother William Herschel included it in his catalog as H VI.30. This cluster is also known as “The White Rose” Cluster or “Caroline’s Rose” Cluster because when seen visually, the loops of stars and dark lanes look like the swirling pattern of rose petals as seen from above. At 1.6 billion years old, this cluster of stars is beginning to show its age. All the stars in the cluster were likely born at the same time but the brighter and more massive ones have more rapidly exhausted the hydrogen fuel in their cores.

Are you interested in faint nebulae? Then try your luck with IC 59. One of two arc-shaped nebulae (the other is IC 63) that are associated with the extremely luminous star Gamma Cassiopeiae. IC 59 lies about 20′ to the north of Gamma Cas and is primarily a reflection nebula. Other faint emission nebulae include the “Heart and Soul” (LBN 667 and IC 1805) which includes wide open star clusters Collider 34 and IC 1848.

Of course, no trip through Cassiopeia would be complete without mentioning Tycho’s Star! SN 1572 or Tycho’s Supernova was a Type Ia supernova in the constellation Cassiopeia – one of about eight supernovae visible to the naked eye in historical records. It burst forth in early November 1572 and was independently discovered by many individuals. was perhaps one of the two or three most important events in the history of astronomy. The “new star” helped to shatter stale, ancient models of the heavens and to inaugurate a tremendous revolution in astronomy that began with the realized need to produce better astrometric star catalogues (and thus the need for more precise astronomical observing instruments). Tycho Brahe did extensive work in both observing the new star and in analyzing his own observations and those of many other observers. But Tycho was not even close to being the first to observe the 1572 supernova, although he was apparently the most accurate observer of the object (though not by much over some of his European colleagues like Wolfgang Schuler, Thomas Digges, John Dee and Francesco Maurolico). The more reliable contemporary reports state that the new star itself burst forth sometime between 1572 November 2 and 6, when it rivaled Venus in brightness. The supernova remained visible to the naked eye into 1574, gradually fading until it disappeared from view. But don’t let Cassiopeia disappear from your view! There’s many other wonderful targets to enjoy!

While there is no actual meteoroid stream associated with the constellation of Cassiopeia, there is a meteor shower which seems to emanate near it. On August 31st the Andromedid meteor shower peaks and its radiant is nearest to Cassiopeia. Occasionally this meteor shower will produce some spectacular activity but usually the fall rate only averages about 20 per hour. There can be some red fireballs with trails. Biela’s Comet is the associated parent with the meteor stream.

Constellation Charts Provided by Your Sky.

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