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Cetus is one of the 48 original constellations charted by Ptolemy and the sea monster remains as one of the 88 modern constellation recognized by the IAU. The majority of the constellation resides just below the ecliptic plane and it is bordered by Aries, Pisces, Aquarius, Sculptor, Fornax, Eridanus and Taurus. Cetus sprawls across 1231 square degrees of sky and contains 15 main stars, highlighted by 3 bright stars and 88 Bayer/Flamsteed designations. It is visible at latitudes between +70° and ?90° and is best seen at culmination during the month of November.
In mythology, Cetus ties in with the legendary Cepheus,Cassiopeia, Andromeda, Perseus tale – for Cetus is the monster to which poor Andromeda was to be sacrificed. (This whole tale is quite wonderful when studied, for we can also tie in Pegasus as Perseus’ horse, Algol and the whom he slew to get to Andromeda and much, much more!) As for poor, ugly Cetus… He also represents the gates to the underworld thanks to his postion just under the ecliptic plane. Arab legend has it that Cetus carries two pearl necklaces – one broken and the other intact – which oddly enough, you can see amoungst its faint stars in the circular patterns when nights are dark. No matter what the legends are, Cetus is an rather dim, but interesting constellation!
Of all the stars in Cetus, the very first you must look for in binoculars is Mira. Omicron Ceti was the very first variable star discovered and was perhaps known as far back as ancient China, Babylon or Greece. The variability of Mira was recorded by the astronomer David Fabricius beginning on August 3, 1596 while observing Mercury. At the time, he needed a reference star to compare Mercury to, so he used Omicron. When he returned a few weeks later on August 21, to his surprised he noticed it had jumped in brightness by at least a magnitude! By October? Gone again. Fabricius wasn’t dumb. He figured he’d merely stumbled upon a nova event and noted it as such… But on February 16, 1609? It was back again. In 1638 Johann Holwarda determined Omicron’s varibility periods, but it took Johannes Hevelius to name it Mira “The Wonderful”. What makes Mira tick? First off, Mira A (yes, it has a companion star) is an Asymptotic Giant Branch (AGB) star in the thermally pulsing AGB phase. Every time it pulses, it grows more luminous and the pulses grow stronger. Mira is also a class unto itself – an oscillating red giant star that may take 80 days to brighten – and may take 3 years. It may become as bright as magnitude 2 or as dim as magnitude 10, with these changes occuring in as little as about 3 months. What it all adds up to is there is a whole lot more we don’t know about Mira than we do know!
Now aim your binoculars at Alpha Ceti. It’s name is Menkar and we do know something about it. Menkar is an old and dying star, long past the hydrogen and perhaps even past the helium stage of its stellar evolution. Right now it’s a red giant star but as it begins to burn its carbon core it will likely become highly unstable before finally shedding its outer layers and forming a planetary nebula, leaving a relatively large white dwarf remnant. Hop down to Beta Ceti – Diphda. Oddly enough, Diphda is actually the brightest star in Cetus, despite its beta designation. It is a giant star with a stellar corona that’s brightening with age – exerting about 2000 times more x-ray power than our Sun! For some reason, it has gone into an advanced stage if stellar evolution called core helium burning – where it is converting helium directly to carbon.
Are you ready to get out your telescope now? Then aim at Diphda and drop south a couple of degrees for NGC 247. This is a very definite spiral galaxy with an intense “stellar” nucleus! Sitting right up in the eyepiece as a delightful oval, the NGC 247 is has a very proper galaxy structure with a defined core area and a concentration that slowly disperses toward its boundaries with one well-defined dark dust lane helping to enhance a spiral arm. Most entertaining! Continuing “down” we move on to the NGC 253. Talk about bright! Very few galactic studies come in this magnitude (small telescopes will pick it up very well, but it requires large aperture to study structure.) Very elongated and hazy, it reminds me sharply of the “Andromeda Galaxy”. The center is very concentrated and the spiral arms wrap their way around it beautifully! Dust lanes and bright hints of concentration are most evident. and its most endearing feature is that it seems to be set within a mini “Trapezium” of stars. A very worthy study…
Now, let’s hop off to Delta Ceti, shall we? I want to rock your world – because spiral galaxy M77 rocked mine! Once again, easily achieved in the small telescope, Messier 77 comes “alive” with aperture. This one has an incredible nucleus and very pronounced spiral arms – three big, fat ones! Underscored by dark dust lanes, the arms swirl away from the center in a galactic display that takes your breath away! The “mottling” inside the structure is not just a hint in this ovalish galaxy. I guarantee you won’t find this one “ho hum”… how could you when you know you’re looking at something that’s 47.0 million light-years away! Messier 77 is an active galaxy with an Active Galactic Nucleus (AGN) and one of the brightest Seyfert galaxies known.
Now, return to Delta and the “fall line” runs west to east on the north side. First up is galaxy NGC 1073, a very pretty little spiral galaxy with a very “stretched” appearing nucleus that seems to be “ringed” by its arms! Continuing along the same trajectory, we find the NGC 1055. Oh, yes… Edge-on, lenticular galaxy! This soft streak of light is accompanied by a trio of stars. The galaxy itself is cut through by a dark dust lane, but what appears so unusual is the core is to one side! Now we’ve made it to back to the incredible M77, but let’s keep on the path and pick up the NGC 1087 – a nice, even-looking spiral galaxy with a bright nucleus and one curved arm. Ready to head for the beautiful variable Mira again? Then let her be the guide star, because halfway between there and Delta is the NGC 936 – a soft spiral galaxy with a “saturn” shaped nucleus. Nice starhoppin’!