Messier 92 – the NGC 6341 Globular Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the globular cluster known as Messier 92!

During the 18th century, famed French astronomer Charles Messier noticed the presence of several “nebulous objects” while surveying the night sky. Originally mistaking these objects for comets, he began to catalog them so that others would not make the same mistake. Today, the resulting list (known as the Messier Catalog) includes over 100 objects and is one of the most influential catalogs of Deep Space Objects.

One of these objects is Messier 92, a globular cluster located in the northern constellation of Hercules. This cluster lies at a distance of 26,700 light-years from Earth and is also approaching our galaxy at a speed of about 112 km/s (403,200 km/h; 250,500 mph) – which means it will eventually merge with our own. With an average estimated age of 14.2 billion years (± 1.2 billion years), it is almost as old as the Universe itself!


Wonderfully resolvable in large aperture, 26,000 light-years distant M92 seems to literally explode with stars… and no wonder! This sixteen billion-year-old globular has perhaps 330,000 of them packed into a 109 light-year radius. While only about 16 of these stars are variables, there are also some eclipsing binaries in there as well as some unusual ultra-violet objects.

M92 by the Hubble Space Telescope. Image: ESA/NASA

As F.R. Ferraro (et al) indicated in a 1998 study:

“The cores of several Galactic Globular Clusters (GGCs) has been observed with the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) WFPC2 through visual, blue and mid- and far-UV filters in two programs devoted to study the evolved sequences in the Color Magnitude Diagrams (CMDs) of GGCs. In the UV CMDs of two clusters (M13 and M92) we have discovered a population of faint objects with a strong UV excess which lie significantly outside the main loci defined by normal stars. Some of these UV objects are nearly coincident to positions of low luminosity X-ray sources. We suggest that these stars might be a, perhaps new, subclass of cataclysmic variable.”

So what causes one globular cluster to have different properties than the rest? Apparently it isn’t age, because according to research, all globular cluster may have formed roughly at the same time. As William Harris (et al) said in a 1997 study:

“A differential fit of the NGC 2419 CMD to that of the similarly metal-poor ‘standard’ cluster M92 shows that they have virtually identical principal sequences and thus the same age to within 1 Gyr. Previously published studies of many other low-metallicity globular clusters throughout the Milky Way halo show that they possess this same age to within the ¸ 1 Gyr precision of measurement. The addition of the remote-halo object NGC 2419 to this list leads us to conclude that the earliest star (or globular cluster) formation began at essentially the same time everywhere in the Galactic halo throughout a region now almost 200 kpc in diameter.”

So, is age relative? Or can it be determined precisely? According to N. Paust in his 2009 study:

“While isochrone fitting is the routine method used to determine cluster ages, it is not the only possible method. Indeed recent observations of M92 (NGC 6341), M3 (NGC 5272), M13 (NGC 6205), and M14 (NGC 6402) have shown that the shape of the red giant branch (RGB) luminosity function (LF) can be used to simultaneously determine the distance modulus and age of clusters with gigayear precision.”

Globular clusters M92 and M13 in Hercules. Credit: Wikisky

History of Observation:

This awesome globular cluster was originally discovered by Johann Elert Bode on December 27, 1777 who wrote:

“A nebula. More or less round with pale glow. On this occasion, I also want to announce that on December 27, 1777 I have discovered a new nebula in Hercules, not known to me, southwest below the star s in his foot, which shows up in a mostly round figure with a pale glimmer of light. Its longitude is about 11 deg [Sgr] [251 d] and its latitude 66d north.Together with two small [faint] stars, which don’t occur at Flamstead, it appears in the reversing telescope as shown in fig k (in the following volume).”

Charles Messier would be the next to encounter it on March 18, 1781. In his notes he writes:

“Nebula, fine, distinct, and very bright, between the knee and the left leg of Hercules, it can be seen very well in a telescope of one foot [FL]. It contains no star; the center is clear and brilliant, surrounded by nebulosity and [it] resembles the nucleus of a large Comet: its brightness, its size, approach much that of the nebula which is in the girdle of Hercules. See No. 13 of this Catalog: its position has been determined, by direct comparison with the star Sigma Herculis, fourth magnitude: the nebula and the star are on the same parallel. (diam. 5′)”

Messier 92 by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: ESA & NASA

Sir William Herschel would be the first to resolve it into stars, but it was Admiral Smyth who gave M92 the true attention it deserved:

“A globular cluster of minute stars, preceding the right leg of Hercules. This object is large, bright, and resolvable, with a very luminous centre; and, under the best vision, has irregular streamy edges. It is immediately preceded by a 12th-magnitude star, distinct from the outliers, and there are several other stars in the field, of which the brightest is of the 7th magnitude in the nf [north following, NE], with a Delta AR = 28s. Messier, who enrolled it in 1781, remarks that “it is easily seen with a telescope of one foot [FL];” and it really demands very little optical aid to render it visible. Messier’s own instrument did not, it seems, resolve it, for he compares the shining centre, with its attendants, to the nucleus of a comet surrounded by nebulous matter; but of course, it rose into a brilliant cluster, of 7′ or 8′ in diameter, before the reflectors of Sir W. Herschel in 1783. The mean place was obtained by carefully differentiating the cluster with Eta Herculis, from which it bears north-by-east, 1deg 1/2 distant; bearing to the north of Alpha Herculis, and west of Wega.”

Locating Messier 92:

Once you’ve identified the “keystone” asterism in the constellation of Hercules, finding Messier 92 is a snap. Simply draw a mental line between Pi and Eta, (the widest part of the keystone and the northernmost two stars) and create a triangle in your mind. Now, focus the finderscope at the apex of the triangle and look for a small, smudgy spot just to the north.

You’re on it! Bright and easy, M92 can be spotted in small binoculars and becomes recognizable as a globular cluster in larger models. At close to magnitude 6, it’s near unaided eye visibility from a dark sky location and makes an excellent object for urban telescopes – even on partially moonlit nights!

The location of Messier 92 in the Hercules constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

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

Object Name: Messier 92
Alternative Designations: M92, NGC 6341
Object Type: Class IV Globular Cluster
Constellation: Hercules
Right Ascension: 17 : 17.1 (h:m)
Declination: +43 : 08 (deg:m)
Distance: 26.7 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 6.4 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 14.0 (arc min)

We have written many interesting articles about Messier Objects here at Universe Today. Here’s Tammy Plotner’s Introduction to the Messier Objects, M1 – The Crab Nebula, M8 – The Lagoon Nebula, and David Dickison’s articles on the 2013 and 2014 Messier Marathons.

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


Tammy Plotner

Tammy was 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. (Tammy passed away in early 2015... she will be missed)

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