Messier 67 – the King Cobra Open Star Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the big snake – the King Cobra Cluster (aka. Messier 67).

In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier kept noting the presence of fixed, diffuse objects he initially mistook for comets. In time, he would come to compile a list of approximately 100 of these objects, hoping to prevent other astronomers from making the same mistake. This list – known as the Messier Catalog – would go on to become one of the most influential catalogs of Deep Sky Objects.

One of these objects is the open star cluster known as Messier 67, aka. the King Cobra Cluster. Located in the Cancer Constellation, and with age estimates ranging from 3.2 and 5 billion years, this cluster is one of the oldest clusters known. And at a distance of roughly 2610 and 2930 (800 – 900 pc) from Earth, it is the closest of any of the older open star clusters.


At 3.2 billion years, Messier 67 is billed as one of the oldest star clusters known and the oldest of all the Messier clusters. Containing perhaps 500 stars, and about 100 stars similar to our own Sun, this cloud contains no main sequence stars bluer than spectral type F, since the brighter stars of that age have already left the main sequence – no matter how it may appear! Among its 150 white dwarf stars, there’s only about 30 blue stragglers…

Messier 67 (aka. the King Cobra Cluster), one of the oldest known open star clusters. . Credit & Copyright: Processing – Noel Carboni, Imaging – Greg Parker/NASA

As Xiao-Bin Zhan (et al) indicated in a 2005 study:

“We present results of a time-series CCD photometry of two blue stragglers in the open cluster M67 that are also oscillating variables, S1280 and S1284. The observations obtained on 11 nights confirmed the Delta Scuti-like variability of the two stars. Four and five main pulsating frequencies are detected for S1280 and S1284, respectively, through a power spectral analysis. A preliminary mode identification indicates that the two stars are both in radial oscillation. Based on the nature of oscillation, the physical parameters of the two stars are determined, and their evolutionary status discussed.”

As you look at this old open cluster, realize that it’s a great study field for stellar evolution. As Jarrod R. Hurley (et al) explained in their 2005 study:

“The old open cluster M67 is an ideal testbed for current cluster evolution models because of its dynamically evolved structure and rich stellar populations that show clear signs of interaction between stellar, binary and cluster evolution. Here we present the first truly direct N-body model for M67, evolved from zero age to 4 Gyr taking full account of cluster dynamics as well as stellar and binary evolution. Our preferred model starts with 12000 single stars and 12000 binaries placed in a Galactic tidal field at 8.0 kpc from the Galactic Centre. Our choices for the initial conditions and for the primordial binary population are explained in detail. At 4 Gyr, the age of M67, the total mass has reduced by 90% as a result of mass loss and stellar escapes. The mass and half-mass radius of luminous stars in the cluster are a good match to observations although the model is more centrally concentrated than observations indicate. The stellar mass and luminosity functions are significantly flattened by preferential escape of low-mass stars. We find that M67 is dynamically old enough that information about the initial mass function is lost, both from the current luminosity function and from the current mass fraction in white dwarfs. The model contains 20 blue stragglers at 4 Gyr which is slightly less than the 28 observed in M67. Nine are in binaries. The blue stragglers were formed by a variety of means and we find formation paths for the whole variety observed in M67. Both the primordial binary population and the dynamical cluster environment play an essential role in shaping the population. A substantial population of short-period primordial binaries (with periods less than a few days) is needed to explain the observed number of blue stragglers in M67.”

History of Observation:

According to Johann Elert Bode, M67 was originally discovered by Johann Gottfried Koehler before the year 1779, but his telescope was so primitive that little more than the light could be made out. According to historical records his listed it as his object nineteen, describing it as, “A rather conspicuous nebula in elongated figure, near Alpha of Cancer.”

Charles Messier independently rediscovered M67, resolved it into stars, and cataloged it on April 6, 1780: “Cluster of small stars with nebulosity, below the southern claw of Cancer.” It was observed again by Caroline Herschel, and many times by Sir William, ending up getting its General Catalog designation for John Herschel. Of all the folks in history who described it… Dreyer said it best when he said it was a “Remarkable; cluster; very bright; very large; extremely rich.”

Locating Messier 67:

Finding M67 is easy in both binoculars and a telescope once you’ve identified the upside down Y shape of the constellation of Cancer. Simply take aim at the easternmost star in the Y, and you’ll find this delightful open cluster about a finger width to the west.

The location Messier 67 in the Cancer constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

In binoculars and very small telescopes you’ll spy a rich concentration that will appear almost galaxy-like, while larger apertures will fully resolve this cloud of stellar points. M67 is well suited to urban skies and moderate moonlit conditions.

Enjoy the magnificent M67 yourself!

And here are the quick facts on this Messier Object to help you get started:

Object Name: Messier 67
Alternative Designations: M67, NGC 2682
Object Type: Open Galactic Star Cluster
Constellation: Cancer
Right Ascension: 08 : 50.4 (h:m)
Declination: +11 : 49 (deg:m)
Distance: 2.7 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 6.1 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 30.0 (arc min)

We have written many interesting articles about Messier Objects here at Universe Today. Here’s Tammy Plotner’s Introduction to the Messier ObjectsM1 – The Crab Nebula, and David Dickison’s articles on the 2013 and 2014 Messier Marathons.

Be to sure to check out our complete Messier Catalog. And for more information, check out the SEDS Messier Database.