The Cepheus Constellation

Welcome back to Constellation Friday! Today, in honor of the late and great Tammy Plotner, we will be dealing with the King of Ethiopia himself, the Cepheus constellation!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of all the then-known 48 constellations. This treatise, known as the Almagest, would be used by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come, effectively becoming astrological and astronomical canon until the early Modern Age.

One of these is the northern constellation of Cepheus, named after the mythological king of Ethiopia. Today, it is one of the 88 modern constellations recognized by the IAU, and is bordered by the constellations of Camelopardalis, Cassiopeia, Cygnus, Draco, Lacerta, and Ursa Minor.

Name and Meaning:

In Greek mythology, Cepheus represents the mythical king of Aethiopia – and husband to the vain queen Cassiopeia. This also makes him the father of the lovely Andromeda, and a member of the entire sky saga which involves jealous gods and mortal boasts. According to this myth, Zeus placed Cepheus in the sky after his tragic death, which resulted from a jealous lovers’ spat.

Cepheus as depicted in Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c. 1825. Credit: Library of Congress/Sidney Hall

It began when Cepheus’ wife – Cassiopeia – boasted that she was more beautiful than the Nereids (the sea nymphs), which angered the nymphs and Poseidon, god of the sea. Poseidon sent a sea monster, represented by the constellation Cetus, to ravage Cepheus’ land. To avoid catastrophe, Cepheus tried to sacrifice his daughter Andromeda to Cetus; but she was saved by the hero Perseus, who also slew the monster.

The two were to be married, but this created conflict since Andromeda had already been promised to Cepheus brother, Phineus. A fight ensued, and Perseus was forced to brandish the head of Medusa to defeat his enemies, which caused Cepheus and Cassiopeia (who did not look away in time) to turn to stone. Perhaps his part in the whole drama is why his crown only appears to be seen in the fainter stars when he’s upside down?

History of Observation:

As one of the 48 fabled constellations from Greek mythology, Cepheus was included by Ptolemy in his 2nd century tract, The Almagest. In 1922, it was included in the 88 modern constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU).

Notable Features:

Bordered by Cygnus, Lacerta and Cassiopeia, it contains only one bright star, but seven major stars and 43 which have Bayer/Flamsteed designations. It’s brightest star, Alpha Cephei, is a white class A star, which is located about 48 light years away. Its traditional name (Alderamin) is derived from the Arabic “al-dira al-yamin“, which means “the right arm”.

This Hubble image shows RS Puppis, a type of variable star known as a Cepheid variable. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI/AURA/H. Bond/STScI/Penn State University

Next is Beta Cephei, a triple star systems that is approximately 690 light years from Earth. The star’s traditional name, Alfirk, is derived from the Arabic “al-firqah” (“the flock”). The brightest component in this system, Alfirk A, is a blue giant star (B2IIIev), which indicates that it is a variable star. In fact, this star is a prototype for Beta Cephei variables – main sequence stars that show variations in brightness as a result of pulsations of their surfaces.

Then there’s Delta Cephei, which is located approximately 891 light years from the Solar System. This star also serves as a prototype for Cepheid variables, where pulsations on its surface are directly linked to changes in luminosity. The brighter component of the binary is classified as a yellow-white F-class supergiant, while its companion is believed to be a B-class star.

Gamma Cephei is another binary star in Cepheus, which is located approximately 45 light years away. The star’s traditional name is Alrai (Er Rai or Errai), which is derived from the Arabic ar-r?‘?, which means “the shepherd.” Gamma Cephei is an orange subgiant (K1III-IV) that can be seen by the naked eye, and its companion has about 0.409 solar masses and is thought to be an M4 class red dwarf.

Cepheus is also home to many notable Deep Sky Objects. For example, there’s NGC 6946, which is sometimes called the Fireworks Galaxy because of its supernovae rate and high volume of star formation. This  intermediate spiral galaxy is located approximately 22 million light years distant. The galaxy was discovered by William Herschel in September 1798, and nine supernovae have been observed in it over the last century.

The Fireworks Galaxy (NGC 6946). Credit: Simon Driver (University of St. Andrews)

Next up is the Wizard Nebula (NGC 7380), an open star cluster that was discovered by Caroline Herschel in 1787. The cluster is embedded in a nebula that is about 110 light years in size and roughly 7,000 light years from our Solar System. It is also a relatively young open cluster, as its stars are estimated to be less than 500 million years old.

Then there’s the Iris Nebula (NGC 7023), a reflection nebula with an apparent magnitude of 6.8 that is approximately 1,300 light years distant. The object is so-named because it is actually a star cluster embedded inside a nebula. The nebula is lit by the star SAO 19158 and it lies close to two relatively bright stars – T Cephei, which is a Mira type variable, and Beta Cephei.

Discovered by Sir William Herschel on October 18, 1794, Herschel made the correct assumption of, “A star of 7th magnitude. Affected with nebulosity which more than fills the field. It seems to extend to at least a degree all around: (fainter) stars such as 9th or 10th magnitude, of which there are many, are perfectly free from this appearance.”

So where did the confusion come in? It happened in 1931 when Per Collinder decided to list the stars around it as a star cluster Collinder 429. Then along came Mr. van den Berg, and the little nebula became known as van den Berg 139. Then the whole group became known as Caldwell 4! So what’s right and what isn’t?

The Wizard Nebula (NGC 738). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team

According to Brent Archinal, “I was surprised to find NGC 7023 listed in my catalog as a star cluster. I assumed immediately the Caldwell Catalog was in error, but further checking showed I was wrong! The Caldwell Catalog may be the only modern catalog to get the type correctly!”

Finding Cepheus:

Cepheus is a circumpolar constellation of the northern hemisphere and is easily seen at visible at latitudes between +90° and -10° and best seen during culmination during the month of November. For the unaided eye observer, start first with Cepheus’ brightest star – Alpha. It’s name is Alderamin and it’s going through stellar evolution – moving off the main sequence into a subgiant, and on its way to becoming a red giant as its hydrogen supply depletes.

What’s very cool is Alderamin is located near the precessional path traced across the celestial sphere by the Earth’s north pole. That means that periodically this star comes within 3° of being a pole star! Keeping that in mind, head off for Gamma Cephei. Guess what? Due to the precession of the equinoxes, Errai will become our northern pole star around 3000 AD and will make its closest approach around 4000 AD. (Don’t wait up, though… It will be late).

However, you can stay up late enough with a telescope or binoculars to have a closer look at Errai, because its an orange subgiant binary star that’s also about to go off the main sequence and its accompanied by a red dwarf star. What’s so special about that? Well, maybe because a planet has been discovered floating around there, too!

The location of the northern Cepheus constellation. Credit: IAU/Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

Now let’s have some fun with a Cepheid variable star that changes enough in about 5 days to make watching it fun! You’ll find Delta on the map as the figure 8 symbol and in the sky you’ll find it 891 light-years away. Delta Cephei is binary star system and the prototype of the Cepheid variable stars – the closest of its type to the Sun.

This star pulses every 5.36634 days, causing its stellar magnitude to vary from 3.6 to 4.3. But that’s not all! Its spectral type varies, too – going from F5 to G3. Try watching it over a period of several nights. Its rise to brightness is much faster than its decline! With a telescope, you will be able to see a companion star separated from Delta Cephei by 41 arc seconds.

Are you ready to examine two red supergiant stars? If you live in a dark sky area, you can see these unaided, but they are much nicer in binoculars. The first is Mu Cephei – aka. Herschel’s Garnet Star. In his 1783 notes, Sir William Herschel wrote: “a very fine deep garnet colour, such as the periodical star omicron ceti” and the name stuck when Giuseppe Piazzi included the description in his catalog.

Now compare it to VV Cephi, right smack in the middle of the map. VV is absolutely a supergiant star, and it is of the largest stars known. In fact, VV Cephei is believed to be the third largest star in the entire Milky Way Galaxy! VV Cephei is 275,000-575,000 times more luminous than the Sun and is approximately 1,600–1,900 times the Sun’s diameter.

Artist’s impression of VV Cep A, created using Celestia, with Mu Cephei (Garnet Star) in the background. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Rackshea

If placed in our solar system, the binary system would extend past the orbit of Jupiter and approach that of Saturn. Some 3,000 light years away from Earth, matter continuously flows off this bad boy and into its blue companion. Stellar wind flows off the system at a velocity of approximately 25 kilometers per second. And some body’s Roche lobe gets filled!

For some rich field telescope and binocular fun from a dark sky site, try your luck with IC1396. This 3 degree field of nebulosity can even be seen unaided at times! Inside you’ll find an open star cluster (hence the designation) and photographically the whole area is criss-crossed with dark nebulae.

For a telescope challenge, see if you can locate both Spiral galaxy NGC 6946 – aka. the Fireworks Nebula – and galactic cluster NGC 6939 about 2 degrees southwest of Eta Cepheus. About 40 arc minutes northwest of NGC 6946 – is about 8th magnitude, well compressed and contains about 80 stars.

More? Then try NGC 7023 – The Iris Nebula. This faint nebula can be achieved in dark skies with a 114-150mm telescope, but larger aperture will help reveal more subtle details since it has a lower surface brightness. Take the time at lower power to reveal the dark dust “lacuna” around it reported so many years ago, and to enjoy the true beauty of this Caldwell gem.

The Iris Nebula (NGC 7023). Credit: Hewholooks

Still more? Then head off with your telescope for IC1470 – but take your CCD camera. IC1470 is a compact H II region excited by a single O7 star associated with an extensive molecular cloud in the Perseus arm!

Yes, Cepheus has plenty of viewing opportunities for the amateur astronomer. And for thousands of years, it has proven to be a source of fascination for scholars and astronomers.

We have written many interesting articles about the constellation here at Universe Today. Here is What Are The Constellations?What Is The Zodiac?, and Zodiac Signs And Their Dates.

Be sure to check out The Messier Catalog while you’re at it!

For more information, check out the IAUs list of Constellations, and the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space page on Canes Venatici and Constellation Families.

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Messier 32 – the “Le Gentil” Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at dwarf elliptical galaxy known as Messier 32. Enjoy!

During the 18th century, famed French astronomer Charles Messier noted the presence of several “nebulous objects” in the night sky. Having originally mistaken them for comets, he began compiling a list of them so that others would not make the same mistake he did. In time, this list (known as the Messier Catalog) would come to include 100 of the most fabulous objects in the night sky.

One of these objects is the dwarf elliptical galaxy known as Messier 32 (aka. NGC 221). Located about 2.65 million light-years from Earth, in the direction of the Andromeda constellation, this dwarf is actually a satellite galaxy of the massive Andromeda Galaxy (M31). Along with Andromeda, the Milky Way and the Triangulum Galaxy (M33) is a member of the Local Group.

Description:

M32 is an elliptical dwarf galaxy which contains about 3 billion solar masses. While it looks small compared to its massive neighbor, this little guy actually stretches across space some 8,000 light years in diameter. Once you pick it up, you’ll notice it’s really quite bright on its own – and with very good reason – its nucleus is almost identical to M31. Both contain about 100 million solar masses in rapid motion around a central supermassive object!

The dwarf elliptical galaxy Messier 32 (Le Gentil). Credit: Wikisky

As Alister W. Graham wrote in his 2002 study – titled “Evidence for an outer disk in the Prototype `Compact Elliptical’ Galaxy M32“:

“M32 is the prototype for the relatively rare class of galaxies referred to as compact ellipticals. It has been suggested that M32 may be a tidally disturbed r1/4 elliptical galaxy or the remnant bulge of a disk-stripped early-type spiral galaxy reveals that the surface bightness profile, the velocity dispersion measurements, and the estimated supermassive black hole mass in M32 are inconsistent with the galaxy having, and probably ever having had, an r1/4 light profile. Instead, the radial surface brightness distribution of M32 resembles an almost perfect (bulge+exponential disk) profile; this is accompanied by a marked increase in the ellipticity profile and an associated change in the position angle profile where the “disk” starts to dominate. Compelling evidence that this bulge/disk interpretation is accurate comes from the best-fitting r1/n bulge model, which has a Sersic index of n=1.5, in agreement with the recently discovered relation between a bulge’s Sersic index and the mass of a bulge’s supermassive black hole.”

By probing deeply into Messier 32, we’ve learned this little galaxy is home to mainly mature red and yellow stars. And they’re good housekeepers, too… because there’s practically no dust or gas to be found. While this seems neat and tidy, it also means there isn’t any new star formation going on either, but there are signs of some lively doings in the not too distant past.

Because M32 has shared “space” with neighboring massive M31, the strong tidal field of the larger galaxy may have ripped away what once could have been spiral arms – leaving only its central bulge and triggering starburst in the core. As Kenji Bekki (et al) wrote in their 2001 study:

“The origin of M32, the closest compact elliptical galaxy (cE), is a long-standing puzzle of galaxy formation in the Local Group. Our N-body/smoothed particle hydrodynamics simulations suggest a new scenario in which the strong tidal field of M31 can transform a spiral galaxy into a compact elliptical galaxy. As a low-luminosity spiral galaxy plunges into the central region of M31, most of the outer stellar and gaseous components of its disk are dramatically stripped as a result of M31’s tidal field. The central bulge component on the other hand, is just weakly influenced by the tidal field, owing to its compact configuration, and retains its morphology. M31’s strong tidal field also induces rapid gas transfer to the central region, triggers a nuclear starburst, and consequently forms the central high-density and more metal-rich stellar populations with relatively young ages. Thus, in this scenario, M32 was previously the bulge of a spiral galaxy tidally interacting with M31 several gigayears ago. Furthermore, we suggest that cE’s like M32 are rare, the result of both the rather narrow parameter space for tidal interactions that morphologically transform spiral galaxies into cE’s and the very short timescale (less than a few times 109 yr) for cE’s to be swallowed by their giant host galaxies (via dynamical friction) after their formation.”

Messier 31 (the Andromeda Galaxy), along with Messier 32 and Messier 110. Credit: Wikisky

History of Observation:

M32 was discovered by Guillaume Le Gentil on October 29th, 1749 and became the first elliptical galaxy ever observed. Although it wasn’t cataloged by Charles Messier until August 3rd, 1764, he had also seen it some seven years earlier while studying at the Paris Observatory, but his notes had been suppressed. But no matter, for he made sure to include it in his notes with a drawing! As he wrote of the object:

“I have examined in the same night [August 3 to 4, 1764], and with the same instruments, the small nebula which is below and at some [arc] minutes from that in the girdle of Andromeda. M. le Gentil discovered it on October 29, 1749. I saw it for the first time in 1757. When I examined the former, I did not know previously of the discovery which had been made by M. Le Gentil, although he had published it in the second volume of the Memoires de Savans erangers, page 137. Here is what I found written in my journal of 1764. That small nebula is round and may have a diameter of 2 minutes of arc: between that small nebula and that in the girdle of Andromeda one sees two small telescopic stars. In 1757, I made a drawing of that nebula, together with the old one, and I have not found and change at each time I have reviewed it: One sees with difficulty that nebula with an ordinary refractor of three feet and a half; its light is fainter than that of the old one, and it doesn’t contain any star. At the passage of that new nebula through the Meridian, comparing it with the star Gamma Andromedae, I have determined its position in right ascension as 7d 27′ 32″, and its declination as 38d 45′ 34″ north.”

Later, Messier 32 would be examined again, this time by Admiral Symth who said:

“An overpowering nebula, with a companion about 25′ in the south vertical M32 … The companion of M31 was discovered in November, 1749, by Le Gentil, and was described by him as being about an eighth of the size of the principal one. The light is certainly more feeble than here assigned. Messier – whose No. 32 it is – observed it closely in 1764, and remarked, that no change had taken place since the time of its being first recorded. In form it is nearly circular. The powerful telescope of Lord Rosse is a reflector of three feet in diameter, of performance hitherto unequalled. It was executed by the Earl of Rosse, under a rare union of skill, assiduity, perseverance, and muniference. The years of application required to accomplish this, have not worn his Lordship’s zeal and spirit; like a giant refreshed, he has returned to his task, and is now occupied upon a metallic disc of no less than six feet in diameter. Should the figure of this prove as perfect as the present one, we may soon over-lap what many absurdly look upon as the boundaries of the creation.”

The location of Messier 32 location in the Andromeda constellation. Credit: Roberto Mura

Locating Messier 32:

Locating M32 is as easy as locating the Andromeda Galaxy, but it will require large binoculars or at least a small telescope to see. Even under moderately light polluted skies the Great Andromeda Galaxy can be easily be found with the unaided eye – if you know where to look. Seasoned amateur astronomers can literally point to the sky and show you the location of M31, but perhaps you have never tried to find it.

Believe it or not, this is an easy galaxy to spot even under the moonlight. Simply identify the large diamond-shaped pattern of stars that is the Great Square of Pegasus. The northernmost star is Alpha, and it is here we will begin our hop. Stay with the northern chain of stars and look four finger widths away from Alpha for an easily seen star.

The next along the chain is about three more finger widths away… And we’re almost there. Two more finger widths to the north and you will see a dimmer star that looks like it has something smudgy nearby. Point your binoculars there, because that’s no cloud – it’s the Andromeda Galaxy!

Now aim your binoculars or telescope its way… Perhaps one of the most outstanding of all galaxies to the novice observer, M31 spans so much sky that it takes up several fields of view in a larger telescope, and even contains its own clusters and nebulae with New General Catalog designations. If you have larger binoculars or a telescope, you will be able to pick up M31’s two companions – M32 and M110. Messier 32 is the elliptical galaxy to the south.

Why not stretch your own boundaries? Go observing! Halton Arp included Messier 32 as No. 168 in his Catalogue of Peculiar Galaxies. It’s bright, easy and fun! And here are the quick facts on this Messier Object to help you get started:

Object Name: Messier 32
Alternative Designations: M32, NGC 221
Object Type: Type E2, Elliptical Galaxy
Constellation: Andromeda
Right Ascension: 00 : 42.7 (h:m)
Declination: +40 : 52 (deg:m)
Distance: 2900 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 8.1 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 8×6 (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 to sure to check out our complete Messier Catalog. And for more information, check out the SEDS Messier Database.

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The Andromeda Constellation

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of the then-known 48 constellations. His treatise, known as the Almagest, would be used by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come. Thanks to the development of modern telescopes and astronomy, this list was amended by the early 20th century to include the 88 constellation that are recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) today.

Of these, Andromeda is one of the oldest and most widely recognized. Located north of the celestial equator, this constellation is part of the family of Perseus, Cassiopeia, and Cepheus. Like many constellation that have come down to us from classical antiquity, the Andromeda constellation has deep roots, which may go all the way back to ancient Babylonian astronomy.

Continue reading “The Andromeda Constellation”