Messier 66 – the NGC 3627 Intermediate Spiral Galaxy

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the intermediate spiral galaxy known as Messier 66.

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 intermediate elliptical galaxy known as Messier 66 (NGC 3627). Located about 36 million light-years from Earth in the direction of the Leo constellation, this galaxy measures 95,000 light-years in diameter. It is also the brightest and largest member of the Leo Triplet of galaxies and is well-known for its bright star clusters, dust lanes, and associated supernovae.

Description:

Enjoying life some 35 million light years from the Milky Way, the group known as the “Leo Trio” is home to bright galaxy Messier 66 – the easternmost of the two M objects. In the telescope or binoculars, you’ll find this barred spiral galaxy far more visible and much easier to see details within its knotted arms and bulging core.

Hubble image of the intermediate spiral galaxy Messier 66. Credits: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration/Davide De Martin/Robert Gendler

Because of interaction with its neighboring galaxies, M66 shows signs of a extremely high central mass concentration as well as a resolved noncorotating clump of H I material apparently removed from one of the spiral arms. Even one of its spiral arms got it noted in Halton Arp’s collection of Peculiar Galaxies! So exactly what did it collide with?As   Xiaolei Zhang (et al) indicated in a 1993 study:

“The combined CO and H I data provide new information, both on the history of the past encounter of NGC 3627 with its companion galaxy NGC 3628 and on the subsequent dynamical evolution of NGC 3627 as a result of this tidal interaction. In particular, the morphological and kinematic information indicates that the gravitational torque experienced by NGC 3627 during the close encounter triggered a sequence of dynamical processes, including the formation of prominent spiral structures, the central concentration of both the stellar and gas mass, the formation of two widely separated and outwardly located inner Lindblad resonances, and the formation of a gaseous bar inside the inner resonance. These processes in coordination allow the continuous and efficient radial mass accretion across the entire galactic disk. The observational result in the current work provides a detailed picture of a nearby interacting galaxy which is very likely in the process of evolving into a nuclear active galaxy. It also suggests one of the possible mechanisms for the formation of successive instabilities in postinteraction galaxies, which could very efficiently channel the interstellar medium into the center of the galaxy to fuel nuclear starburst and Seyfert activities.”

Ah, yes! Star forming regions… And what better way to look deeper than through the eyes of the Spitzer Space Telescope? As R. Kennicutt (University of Arizona) and the SINGS Team observed:

“M66’s blue core and bar-like structure illustrates a concentration of older stars. While the bar seems devoid of star formation, the bar ends are bright red and actively forming stars. A barred spiral offers an exquisite laboratory for star formation because it contains many different environments with varying levels of star-formation activity, e.g., nucleus, rings, bar, the bar ends and spiral arms. The SINGS image is a four-channel false-color composite, where blue indicates emission at 3.6 microns, green corresponds to 4.5 microns, and red to 5.8 and 8.0 microns. The contribution from starlight (measured at 3.6 microns) in this picture has been subtracted from the 5.8 and 8 micron images to enhance the visibility of the dust features.”

Colour composite image of the spiral galaxy M66 (or NGC 3627) obtained with the FORS1 and FORS2 multi-mode instruments (at VLT MELIPAL and YEPUN, respectively). Credit: ESO

Messier 66 has also been deeply studied for evidence of forming super star clusters, too. As David Meier indicated:

“Super star clusters are thought to be precursors of globular clusters and are some of the most extreme star formation regions in the universe. They tend to occur in actively starbursting galaxies or near the cores of less active galaxies. Radio super star clusters cannot be seen in optical light because of extreme extinction, but they shine brightly in infrared and radio observations. We can be certain that there are many massive O stars in these regions because massive stars are required to provide the UV radiation that ionizes the gas and creates a thermally bright HII regions. Not many natal SSCs are currently known, so detection is an important science goal in its own right. In particular, very few SSCs are known in galactic disks. We need more detections to be able to make statistical statements about SSCs and fill in the mass range of forming star clusters. With more detections, we will be able to investigate the effects of other environments (e.g. bars, bubbles, and galactic interaction) on SSCs, which could potentially be followed up in the far future with the Square Kilometer Array to discover their effects on individual forming massive stars.”

But there’s still more. Try magnetic properties in M66’s spiral patterns. As M. Soida (et al) indicated in their 2001 study:

“By observing the interacting galaxy NGC 3627 in radio polarization we try to answer the question; to which degree does the magnetic field follow the galactic gas flow. We obtained total power and polarized intensity maps at 8.46 GHz and 4.85 GHz using the VLA in its compact D-configuration. In order to overcome the zero-spacing problems, the interferometric data were combined with single-dish measurements obtained with the Effelsberg 100-m radio telescope. The observed magnetic field structure in NGC 3627 suggests that two field components are superposed. One component smoothly fills the interarm space and shows up also in the outermost disk regions, the other component follows a symmetric S-shaped structure. In the western disk the latter component is well aligned with an optical dust lane, following a bend which is possibly caused by external interactions. However, in the SE disk the magnetic field crosses a heavy dust lane segment, apparently being insensitive to strong density-wave effects. We suggest that the magnetic field is decoupled from the gas by high turbulent diffusion, in agreement with the large Hi line width in this region. We discuss in detail the possible influence of compression effects and non-axisymmetric gas flows on the general magnetic field asymmetries in NGC 3627. On the basis of the Faraday rotation distribution we also suggest the existence of a large ionized halo around this galaxy.”

History of Observation:

Both M65 and M66 were discovered on the same night – March 1, 1780 – by Charles Messier, who described M66 as, “Nebula discovered in Leo; its light is very faint and it is very close to the preceding: They both appear in the same field in the refractor. The comet of 1773 and 1774 has passed between these two nebulae on November 1 to 2, 1773. M. Messier didn’t see them at that time, no doubt, because of the light of the comet.”

Both galaxies would be observed and cataloged by the Herschel family and further expounded upon by Admiral Smyth:

“A large elongated nebula, with a bright nucleus, on the Lion’s haunch, trending np [north preceding, NW] and sf [south following, SE]; this beautiful specimen of perspective lies just 3deg south-east of Theta Leonis. It is preceded at about 73s by another of a similar shape, which is Messier’s No. 65, and both are in the field at the same time, under a moderate power, together with several stars. They were pointed out by Mechain to Messier in 1780, and they appeared faint and hazy to him. The above is their appearance in my instrument.

“These inconceivably vast creations are followed, exactly on the same parallel, ar Delta AR=174s, by another elliptical nebula of even a more stupendous character as to apparent dimensions. It was discovered by H. [John Herschel], in sweeping, and is No. 875 in his Catalogue of 1830 [actually, probably an erroneous position for re-observed M66]. The two preceding of these singular objects were examined by Sir William Herschel, and his son [JH] also; and the latter says, “The general form of elongated nebulae is elliptic, and their condensation towards the centre is almost invariably such as would arise from the superposition of luminous elliptic strata, increasing in density towards the centre. In many cases the increase of density is obviously attended with a diminution of ellipticity, or a nearer approach to the globular form in the central than in the exterior strata.” He then supposes the general constitution of those nebulae to be that of oblate spheroidal masses of every degree of flatness from the sphere to the disk, and of every variety in respect of the law of their density, and ellipticity towards the centre. This must appear startling and paradoxical to those who imagine that the forms of these systems are maintained by forces identical with those which determine the form of a fluid mass in rotation; because, if the nebulae be only clusters of discrete stars, as in the greater number of cases there is every reason to believe them to be, no pressure can propagate through them. Consequently, since no general rotation of such a system as one mass can be supposed, Sir John suggests a scheme which he shows is not, under certain conditions, inconsistent with the law of gravitation. “It must rather be conceived,” he tells us, ” as a quiescent form, comprising within its limits an indefinite magnitude of individual constituents, which, for aught we can tell, may be moving one among the other, each animated by its own inherent projectile force, and deflected into an orbit more or less complicated, by the influence of that law of internal gravitation which may result from the compounded attractions of all its parts.”

Messier 66 location. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

Locating Messier 66:

Even though you might think by its apparent visual magnitude that M66 wouldn’t be visible in small binoculars, you’d be wrong. Surprisingly enough, thanks to its large size and high surface brightness, this particular galaxy is very easy to spot directly between Iota and Theta Leonis. In even 5X30 binoculars under good conditions you’ll easy see both it and M65 as two distinct gray ovals.

A small telescope will begin to bring out structure in both of these bright and wonderful galaxies, but to get a hint at the “Trio” you’ll need at least 6″ in aperture and a good dark night. If you don’t spot them right away in binoculars, don’t be disappointed – this means you probably don’t have good sky conditions and try again on a more transparent night. The pair is well suited to modestly moonlit nights with larger telescopes.

May you equally be attracted to this galactic pair!

And here are the quick facts on M66 to help you get started:

Object Name: Messier 66
Alternative Designations: M66, NGC 3627, (a member of the) Leo Trio, Leo Triplet
Object Type: Type Sb Spiral Galaxy
Constellation: Leo
Right Ascension: 11 : 20.2 (h:m)
Declination: +12 : 59 (deg:m)
Distance: 35000 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 8.9 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 8×2.5 (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.

Sources:

Messier 62 – the NGC 6266 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 62.

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 globular cluster known as Messier 62, which spans about 100 light-years in diameter and is approximately 22,200 light years from Earth. Located in the southern constellation of Ophiuchus, this cluster is easy to find because of its proximity to Antares – the brightest star in Scorpius constellation – and is easily viewed suing binoculars and small telescopes.

Description:

Positioned about 22,500 light years away from Earth, this glorious gravitationally bound ball of stars could span as much as 100 light years of space. Captured within its confines are 89 known variable stars – most of them RR Lyrae types. M62 has a very dense core… One which may have experienced core collapse during its long history. An ordinary globular cluster? Not hardly. It’s one that holds some optical surprises.

The globular cluster Messier 62 in the constellation Ophiuchus. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Hewholooks

As G. Cocozza (et al) indicated in their 2008 study:

“We report on the optical identification of the companion to the eclipsing millisecond pulsar PSR J1701-3006B in the globular cluster NGC 6266. A relatively bright star with an anomalous red color and an optical variability (~0.2 mag) that nicely correlates with the orbital period of the pulsar (~0.144 days) has been found nearly coincident with the pulsar nominal position. This star is also found to lie within the error box position of an X-ray source detected by Chandra observations, thus supporting the hypothesis that some interaction is occurring between the pulsar wind and the gas streaming off the companion. Although the shape of the optical light curve is suggestive of a tidally deformed star which has nearly completely filled its Roche lobe, the luminosity (~1.9 Lsolar) and the surface temperature (~6000 K) of the star, deduced from the observed magnitude and colors, would imply a stellar radius significantly larger than the Roche lobe radius.”

Is it possible that this is the smoking gun for intermediate mass black holes in globular clusters? Julio Chaname seems to think so. As he explained in his 2009 study:

“The existence of intermediate-mass black holes [IMBHs] in star clusters has been predicted by a variety of theoretical arguments and, more recently, by several large, realistic sets of collisional N-body simulations. Establishing their presence or absence at the centers of globular clusters would profoundly impact our understanding of problems ranging from the formation and long-term dynamical evolution of stellar systems, to the nature of the seeds and the growth mechanisms of the supermassive black holes {BHs} that inhabit the centers of most large, luminous galaxies. Observationally, the unambiguous signature of a massive central BH would be the discovery of central, unresolved X-ray or radio emission that is not consistent with more common stellar-mass accreting objects or pulsars. Yet, due to the largely uncertain details of accretion modeling, a precise mass determination of a central BH must necessarily come from stellar dynamics. This goal has not been achieved to date at the centers of Galactic globular clusters because of lack of adequate data as well as the use of too simplified methods of analysis. This situation can be overcome today through the combination of HST proper-motion measurements and state-of-the-art dynamical models specifically designed to take full advantage of this type of dataset. In this project, we will use two HST orbits to obtain another epoch of observations of NGC 6266. This cluster has photometric and structural properties that are consistent with current theoretical expectations for a cluster harboring an IMBH. Even more importantly, it is the only Galactic globular cluster for which there exists a detection of radio emission coincident with the cluster’s core, and with a flux density that appears to rule out a stellar or binary origin. The goal of our project is to obtain proper motion measurements to either confirm an IMBH in this cluster and measure its mass, or to set limits to its mass and existence.”

The Messier 62 globular cluster, as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA

History of Observation:

While Charles Messier first discovered this globular cluster on June 7, 1771 – he didn’t accurately record its position until June 4, 1779.

“”Very beautiful nebula, discovered in Scorpio, it resembles a little Comet, the center is brilliant and surrounded by a faint glow. Its position determined, by comparing it with the star Tau of Scorpius. M. Messier had already seen this nebula on June 7, 1771, without having determined the position where it is close to. Seen again on March 22, 1781.”

Sir William Herschel would resolve it two years after Messier cataloged it, but it was Admiral Smyth who gave it a little more historic significance when he writes in his notes:

“A fine large resolvable nebula, at the root of the creature’s [Scorpion’s] tail, and in the preceding part of the Galaxy [Milky Way band]. It is an aggregated mass of small stars running up to a blaze in the centre, which renders the differentiating comparatively easy and satisfactory; and in this instance it was referred to its neighbor, 26 Ophiuchi, which is 5deg distant to the north: and it lies only about 7deg from Antares, on the south-east. This was registered in 1779, and Messier described it as “a very pretty nebula, resembling a little comet, the centre bright, and surrounded by a faint light.” Sir William Herschel, who first resolved it, pronounced it a miniature of Messier’s No. 3, and adds, “By the 20-foot telescope, which at the time of these observations was of the Newtonian construction, the profundity of this cluster is of the 734th order.” To my annoyance, it was started as a comet a few years ago, by a gentleman who ought to have known better.”

Locating Messier 62:

M62 is easily located about 5 degrees (3 finger widths) southeast of Antares – but because it is small, it can easily be overlooked in binoculars. Take your time, because it is only just a little more than an average binocular field away from an easy marker star and bright enough to be seen even with smaller instruments under not so good skies.

The locations of Messier 62 in the Ophiuchus constellation. Credit: IAU/Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

In the finderscope of a telescope, begin with Antares in the center and shift southwest. At 5X magnification, it will show as a faint haze. In a small telescope, you may get some resolution – but expect this globular cluster to appear more comet-like. Larger telescopes can expect a wonderful explosion of stars!

Enjoy your observations! And as always, here are the quick facts on this Messier Object to help you get started:

Object Name: Messier 62
Alternative Designations: M62, NGC 6266
Object Type: Class IV Globular Cluster
Constellation: Ophiuchus
Right Ascension: 17 : 01.2 (h:m)
Declination: -30 : 07 (deg:m)
Distance: 22.5 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 6.5 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 15.0 (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.

Sources:

Messier 58 – the NGC 4579 Barred Spiral Galaxy

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the barred spiral galaxy, Messier 58.

In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier kept noting the presence of fixed, diffuse objects in the night sky. In time, he would come to compile a list of approximately 100 of these objects, with the purpose of making sure that astronomers did not mistake them for comets. However, this list – known as the Messier Catalog – would go on to serve a more important function, becoming one of the first catalogs of Deep Sky Objects.

One of these objects is the intermediate barred spiral galaxy known as Messier 58, which is located approximately 68 million light years away in the Virgo constellation. In addition to being one of just four barred spiral galaxies in the Messier Catalog, it is also one of the brightest galaxies in the Virgo Supercluster. Due to its proximity in the sky to other objects in the Virgo Galaxy Field, it can be seen only with the help of a telescope or a pair of large binoculars.

Description:

This beautiful old barred spiral galaxy located approximately 68 million light-years from Earth. Although it might appear pretty plain, it has some great things going for it… namely an active galactic nucleus. As Marcella Contini indicated in a 2004 study:

“We have modelled the low-luminosity active galactic nuclei (AGN) NGC 4579 by explaining both the continuum and the line spectra observed with different apertures. It was found that the nuclear emission is dominated by an AGN such that the flux from the active centre (AC) is relatively low compared with that of the narrow emission-line region (NLR) of Seyfert galaxies. However, the contribution of a young starburst cannot be neglected, as well as that of shock-dominated clouds with velocities of 100, 300 and 500kms-1. A small contribution from an older starburst with an age of 4.5 Myr, probably located in the external nuclear region, is also found. HII regions appear in the extended regions, where radiation and shock-dominated clouds prevail.

“The continuum SED of NGC 4579 is characterized by the strong flux from an old stellar population. Emissions in the radio range show synchrotron radiation from the base of the jet outflowing from the accretion disc within 0.1 pc from the active centre. Radio emission within intermediate distances is explained by the bremsstrahlung from gas downstream of low-velocity shocks reached by a relatively low radiation flux from the AC. In extended regions the radio emission is synchrotron radiation created by the Fermi mechanism at the shock front. The shocks are created by collision of clouds with the jet. All types of emissions observed at different radius from the centre can be reconciled with the presence of the jet.”

The Messier 58 barred spiral galaxy. Credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona

Yet where is this gas traveling to and why? According to 2014 study by S. Garcia-Burillo (et al):

“We created a complete gravity torque map of the disk of the LINER/Seyfert 1.9 galaxy NGC 4579. We quantify the efficiency of angular momentum transport and search for signatures of secular evolution in the fueling process from r ~ 15 kpc down to the inner r ~ 50 pc around the active galactic nucleus (AGN). The derived gravity torque budget in NGC 4579 shows that inward gas flow is occurring on different spatial scales in the disk. In the outer disk, the decoupling of the spiral allows the gas to efficiently populate the UHR region, and thus produce net gas inflow on intermediate scales. The co rotation barrier seems to be overcome by secular evolution processes. The gas in the inner disk is efficiently funneled by gravity torques down to r ~ 300 pc. Closer to the AGN, gas feels negative torques due to the combined action of the large-scale bar and the inner oval. The two m=2 modes act in concert to produce net gas inflow down to r ~ 50 pc, providing clear smoking gun evidence of inward gas transport on short dynamical timescales.”

What causes inward transport of gases? Why, a massive gravity pull of course. And what could be more gravitational attractive than a black hole! As Eliot Quataert (et al) indicated in their 1999 study:

“M81 and NGC 4579 are two of the few low-luminosity active galactic nuclei which have an estimated mass for the central black hole, detected hard X-ray emission, and detected optical/UV emission. In contrast to the canonical “big blue bump,” both have optical/UV spectra which decrease with increasing frequency in a plot. Barring significant reddening by dust and/or large errors in the black hole mass estimates, the optical/UV spectra of these systems require that the inner edge of a geometrically thin, optically thick, accretion disk lies at roughly 100 Schwarzschild radii. The observed X-ray radiation can be explained by an optically thin, two temperature, advection-dominated accretion flow at smaller radii.”

Galaxy NGC 4579 was captured by the Spitzer Infrared Nearby Galaxy Survey (SINGS) Legacy Project using the Spitzer Space Telescope’s Infrared Array Camera (IRAC). In this image, the red structures are areas where gas and dust are thought to be forming new stars, while the blue light comes from mature stars. This SINGS image is a four-channel, false-color composite, where blue indicates emission at 3.6 microns, green corresponds to 4.5 microns, and red to 5.8 and 8.0 microns. The contribution from starlight (measured at 3.6 microns) in this picture has been subtracted from the 5.8 and 8 micron images to enhance the visibility of the dust features.

Messier 58 (NGC 4579), as imaged by the Spitzer Infrared Nearby Galaxy Survey (SINGS) Legacy Project using the Spitzer Space Telescope’s Infrared Array Camera (IRAC). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Kennicutt (University of Arizona) and the SINGS Team

History of Observation:

When Charles Messier discovered this one on April 15, 1779, I’m sure he didn’t know he was looking back into time when he wrote:

“Very faint nebula discovered in Virgo, almost on the same parallel as Epsilon, 3rd mag. The slightest light for illuminating the micrometer wires makes it disappear. M. Messier reported it on the chart of the Comet of 1779, which is located in the volume of the Academy for the same year.”

Messier 58 may not have been a comet, but it certainly was another distant cousin of our own Milky Way!

Locating Messier 58:

Finding M58 requires a telescope or large binoculars, and lots of patience. Because the Virgo Galaxy field contains so many galaxies which can easily be misidentified, it is sometimes easier to “hop” from one galaxy to the next! In this case, we need to start by locating bright Vindemiatrix (Epsilon Virginis) almost due east of Denebola. Let’s hop four and a half degrees west and a shade north of Epsilon to locate one of the largest elliptical galaxies presently known – M60.

At a little brighter than magnitude 9, this galaxy could be spotted with binoculars, but stick with your telescope. In the same low power field (depending on aperture size) you may also note faint NGC 4647 which only appears to be interacting with M60. Also in the field to the west (the direction of drift) is our next Messier, bright cored elliptical M59. Now we will need to continue about an average eyepiece field of view, or a degree further west of this group to bring you to our “galactic twin”, fainter M58.

The location of M58, in the direction of the Virgo constellation. Credit: IAU

In a smaller telescope, do not expect to see much. What will appear at low power is a tiny egg-shaped patch of contrast change. As aperture increases, so does detail and a bright nucleus will begin to appear as you move into the 4-6″ size range and dark sky locations. As with all galaxies, dark skies are a must!

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

Object Name: Messier 58
Alternative Designations: M58, NGC 4579
Object Type: SBc Galaxy
Constellation: Virgo
Right Ascension: 12 : 37.7 (h:m)
Declination: +11 : 49 (deg:m)
Distance: 60000 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 9.7 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 5.5×4.5 (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.

Sources:

Messier 51 – the Whirlpool Galaxy

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at that swirling, starry customer, the Whirlpool Galaxy!

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 is the spiral galaxy located in the constellation Canes Venatici known as the Whirlpool Galaxy (aka. Messier 51). Located between 19 and 27 million light-years from the Milky Way, this deep sky object was the very first to be classified as a spiral galaxy. It is also one of the best known galaxies among amateur astronomers, and is easily observable using binoculars and small telescopes.

Description:

Located some 37 million light years away, M51 is the largest member of a small group of galaxies, which also houses M63 and a number of fainter galaxies. To this time, the exact distance of this group isn’t properly known… Even when a 2005 supernova event should have helped astronomers to correctly calculate! As K. Takats stated in a study:

“The distance to the Whirlpool galaxy (M51, NGC 5194) is estimated using published photometry and spectroscopy of the Type II-P supernova SN 2005cs. Both the expanding photosphere method (EPM) and the standard candle method (SCM), suitable for SNe II-P, were applied. The average distance (7.1 +/- 1.2 Mpc) is in good agreement with earlier surface brightness fluctuation and planetary nebulae luminosity function based distances, but slightly longer than the distance obtained by Baron et al. for SN 1994I via the spectral fitting expanding atmosphere method. Since SN 2005cs exhibited low expansion velocity during the plateau phase, similarly to SN 1999br, the constants of SCM were recalibrated including the data of SN 2005cs as well. The new relation is better constrained in the low-velocity regime, that may result in better distance estimates for such SNe.”

Visible light (left) and infrared image (right) of M51, taken by the Kitt Peak National Observatory and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, respectively. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Kennicutt (Univ. of Arizona)/DSS

Of course, one of the most outstanding features of the Whirlpool Galaxy is its beautiful spiral structure – perhaps result of the close interaction between it and its companion galaxy NGC 5195? As S. Beckwith,

“This sharpest-ever image of the Whirlpool Galaxy, taken in January 2005 with the Advanced Camera for Surveys aboard NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, illustrates a spiral galaxy’s grand design, from its curving spiral arms, where young stars reside, to its yellowish central core, a home of older stars. At first glance, the compact galaxy appears to be tugging on the arm. Hubble’s clear view, however, shows that NGC 5195 is passing behind the Whirlpool. The small galaxy has been gliding past the Whirlpool for hundreds of millions of years. As NGC 5195 drifts by, its gravitational muscle pumps up waves within the Whirlpool’s pancake-shaped disk. The waves are like ripples in a pond generated when a rock is thrown in the water. When the waves pass through orbiting gas clouds within the disk, they squeeze the gaseous material along each arm’s inner edge. The dark dusty material looks like gathering storm clouds. These dense clouds collapse, creating a wake of star birth, as seen in the bright pink star-forming regions. The largest stars eventually sweep away the dusty cocoons with a torrent of radiation, hurricane-like stellar winds, and shock waves from supernova blasts. Bright blue star clusters emerge from the mayhem, illuminating the Whirlpool’s arms like city streetlights.”

But there were more surprises just waiting to be found – like a black hole, surrounded by a ring of dust. What makes it even more odd is a secondary ring crosses the primary ring on a different axis, a phenomenon that is contrary to expectations and a pair of ionization cones extend from the axis of the main dust ring. As H. Ford,

“This image of the core of the nearby spiral galaxy M51, taken with the Wide Field Planetary camera (in PC mode) on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, shows a striking , dark “X” silhouetted across the galaxy’s nucleus. The “X” is due to absorption by dust and marks the exact position of a black hole which may have a mass equivalent to one-million stars like the sun. The darkest bar may be an edge-on dust ring which is 100 light-years in diameter. The edge-on torus not only hides the black hole and accretion disk from being viewed directly from earth, but also determines the axis of a jet of high-speed plasma and confines radiation from the accretion disk to a pair of oppositely directed cones of light, which ionize gas caught in their beam. The second bar of the “X” could be a second disk seen edge on, or possibly rotating gas and dust in MS1 intersecting with the jets and ionization cones.”

History of Observation:

The Whirlpool Galaxy was first discovered by Charles Messier on October 13th, 1773 and re-observed again for his records on January 11th, 1774. As he wrote of his discovery in his notes:

“Very faint nebula, without stars, near the eye of the Northern Greyhound [hunting dog], below the star Eta of 2nd magnitude of the tail of Ursa Major: M. Messier discovered this nebula on October 13, 1773, while he was watching the comet visible at that time. One cannot see this nebula without difficulties with an ordinary telescope of 3.5 foot: Near it is a star of 8th magnitude. M. Messier reported its position on the Chart of the Comet observed in 1773 & 1774. It is double, each has a bright center, which are separated 4’35”. The two “atmospheres” touch each other, the one is even fainter than the other.”

It would be his faithful friend and assistant, Pierre Mechain who would discover NGC 5195 on March 21st, 1781. Even though it would be many, many years before it was proven that galaxies were indeed independent systems, historic astronomers were much, much sharper than we gave them credit for. Sir William Herschel would observe M51 many times, but it would be his son John who would be the very first to comment on M51’s scheme:

“This very singular object is thus described by Messier: – “Nebuleuse sans etoiles.” “On ne peut la voir que difficilement avec une lunette ordinaire de 3 1/2 pieds.” “Elle est double, ayant chacune un centre brillant eloigne l’un de l’autre de 4′ 35″. Les deux atmospheres se touchent.” By this description it is evident that the peculiar phenomena of the nebulous ring which encircles the central nucleus had escaped his observation, as might have been expected from the inferior light of his telescopes. My Father describes it in his observations of Messier’s nebulae as a bright round nebula, surrounded by a halo or glory at a distance from it, and accompanied by a companion; but I do not find that the partial subdivision of the ring into two branches throughout its south following limb was noticed by him. This is, however, one of its most remarkable and interesting features. Supposing it to consist of stars, the appearance it would present to a spectator placed on a planet attendant on one of them eccentrically situated towards the north preceding quarter of the central mass, would be exactly similar to that of our Milky Way, traversing in a manner precisely analogous the firmament of large stars, into which the central cluster would be seen projected, and (owing to its distance) appearing, like it, to consist of stars much smaller than those in other parts of the heavens. Can it, then, be that we have here a brother-system bearing a real physical resemblance and strong analogy of structure to our own? Were it not for the subdivision of the ring, the most obvious analogy would be that of the system of Saturn, and the idea of Laplace respecting the formation of that system would be powerfully recalled by this object. But it is evident that all idea of symmetry caused by rotation on an axis must be relinquished, when we consider that the elliptic form of the inner subdivided portion indicates with extreme probability an elevation of that portion above the plane of the rest, so that the real form must be that of a ring split through half its circumference, and having the split portions set asunder at an angle of about 45 deg each to the plane of the other.”

Sketch of M51 by William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse (Lord Rosse) in 1845. Credit: Public Domain

As with other Messier Objects, Admiral Smyth also had some insightful and poetic observations to add. As he wrote of this galaxy in September of 1836:

“We have then an object presenting an amazing display of the uncontrollable energies of the Omnipotence, the contemplation of which compels reason and admiration to yield to awe. On the outermost verge of telescopic reach we perceive a stellar universe similar to that to which we belong, whose vast amplitudes no doubt are peopled with countless numbers of percipient beings; for those beautiful orbs cannot be considered as mere masses of inert matter.

And it is interesting to know that, if there be intelligent existence, an astronomer gazing at our distant universe, will see it, with a good telescope, precisely under the lateral aspect which theirs presents to us. But after all what do we see? Both that wonderful universe, our own, and all which optical assistance has revealed to us, may be only the outliers of a cluster immensely more numerous.

The millions of suns we perceive cannot comprise the Creator’s Universe. There are no bounds to infinitude; and the boldest views of the elder Herschel only placed us as commanding a ken whose radius is some 35,000 times longer than the distance of Sirius from us. Well might the dying Laplace explain: “That which we know is little; that which we know not is immense.”

Lord Rosse would continue on in 1844 with his 6-feet (72-inch) aperture, 53-ft FL “Leviathan” telescope, but he was a man of fewer words.

“The greater part of the observations were made when the eye was affected by lamp-light, which made it difficult to estimate correctly the centre of the nucleus; it was of importance that no time should be unnecessarily spent, and after the lamp had been used a new measure was taken, as it was judged that the object was sufficiently seen. With the brighter stars this would frequently happen before the nucleus was well defined, as all impediments to vision seem to affect nebulae much more than stars the light of which would be estimated as of the same intensity. In the foregoing list the greatest discrepancies are in the measures of bright objects, and this is probably the proper account of it. No stars have been inserted in the sketch which are not in the table of the measurements. The general appearance of the object would have been better given if the minute stars had been put in from the eye-sketch, but it would have created confusion.”

May the stars from this distant island universe fill your eyes!

The Whirlpool Galaxy (Spiral Galaxy M51, NGC 5194), a classic spiral galaxy located in the Canes Venatici constellation, and its companion NGC 5195. Credit: NASA/ESA

Locating Messier 51:

Locating M51 isn’t too hard if you have dark skies, but this particular galaxy is very difficult where light pollution of moonlight is present. To find it, start with Eta UM, the star at the handle of the Big Dipper. In the finderscope or binoculars, you’ll clearly see 24 UM to the southwest. Now, center your optics there and move slowly southwest towards Cor Caroli (Alpha CVn) and you’ll find it!

In locations where skies are clear and dark, it is easy to see spiral structure in even small telescopes, or to make out the galaxy in binoculars – but even a change in sky conditions can hide it from a good location. Rich field telescopes with fast focal lengths to an outstanding job on this galaxy and companion and you may be able to make out the nucleus of both galaxies on a good night from even a bad location.

Object Name: Messier 51
Alternative Designations: M51, NGC 5194, The Whirlpool Galaxy
Object Type: Type Sc Galaxy
Constellation: Canes Venatici
Right Ascension: 13 : 29.9 (h:m)
Declination: +47 : 12 (deg:m)
Distance: 37000 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 8.4 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 11×7 (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.

Sources:

 

The Corvus Constellation

Welcome to another edition of Constellation Friday! Today, in honor of the late and great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the “Raven” – the Corvus constellation. Enjoy!

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 constellation is the Corvus constellation, a southern constellation whose name in Latin means “the Raven”. Bordered by the constellations of Virgo, Crater and Hydra, it is visible at latitudes between +60° and -90° and is best seen at culmination during the month of May. Today, it is one of the 88 modern constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU).

Name and Meaning:

In classical mythology, Corvus represents the Raven, and is both a charming and sad tale. Legend tells us that the constellation of Crater is the cup of the gods. This cup belonged to the god of the skies himself, the venerable archer-god Apollo. And who holds this cup, dressed in black? The Raven, Corvus.

“Noctua, Corvus, Crater, Sextans Uraniæ, Hydra, Felis, Lupus, Centaurus, Antlia Pneumatica, Argo Navis, and Pyxis Nautica”, plate 32 in Urania’s Mirror, by Sidney Hall. Credit: Library of Congress

The story of a creature sent to fetch water for his master, only to stop to eat figs. Corvus tarried too long, waiting on a fig to ripen. When he realized his mistake, the Raven returned to Apollo with his cup and brought along the serpent Hydra in his claws as well, claiming that the snake prevented him from filling the cup.

Realizing his feathered-friend’s lie, Apollo became angry and tossed the cup (Crater), the snake (Hydra) and the raven (Corvus) into the sky, where they became constellations for all eternity. He further punished the raven by making sure the cup would be out of reach, thus ensuring he would forever be thirsty.

History of Observation:

As with most of the 48 constellations recorded by Ptolemy, the Corvus constellation has roots that go back to ancient Mesopotamia. In the Babylonian star catalogues (dated to ca. 1100 BCE), Corvus was called the Babylonian Raven (MUL.UGA.MUSHEN), which sat on the tail of the Serpent – which was associated with Ningishzida, the Babylonian god of the underworld. This constellation was also sacred to the god of rains and storm (Adad).

By about 500 BCE, this constellation was introduced to the Greeks, along with Crater, Hydra, Aquila and Piscis Austrinus constellations. By the 2nd century CE, they were included by Ptolemy in his Almagest, which would remain the definitive source on astronomy and astrology to Medieval European and Islamic astronomers for many centuries.

In Chinese astronomy, the stars that make up Corvus are located within the Vermilion Bird of the South (Nán Fang Zhu Què). The four main stars depict a chariot (Zhen) while Alpha and Eta mark the linchpins for the wheels, and Zeta represents a coffin (Changsha).

In Indian astronomy, the first five stars in Corvus correspond to the Hast nakshatra – a lunar zodiacal constellation. This is one of is one of the 27 or 28 divisions of the sky, identified by the prominent stars in them, that the Moon passes through during its monthly cycle. While it is Hindu, it is still very similar to the divisions of the ecliptic plane referred to as the zodiac. The Moon takes approximately one day to pass through each nakshatra.

Notable Objects:

This small, box-like asterism has no bright star and consists of 11 stars which are visible to the unaided eye, yet Ptolemy only listed 7! There are 4 main stars and 10 which have Bayer/Flamsteed designations. For unaided eye observers, the Delta, Gamma, Epsilon and Beta (what appears to look like a figure 8, Y, E and B on the map) form an asterism that looks like a “sail”, and when connected seem to point to the bright star Spica.

The brightest star in Corvus is not even its alpha, but is Gamma Corvi. This giant star (which is thought to be a binary system) is located approximately 165 light years from Earth and is also known as Gienah, which comes from the Arabic phrase al-janah al-ghirab al-yaman (“the right wing of the crow”).

Antennae Galaxies – NGC 4038, NGC 4039. Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI, AURA)-ESA, Hubble Collaboration

The second-brightest star, Beta Corvi, is a yellow-white G-type bright giant that is located about 140 light years from Earth. Its proper name, Kraz, was assigned to it in modern times, but the origin of the name is uncertain. Delta Corvi is a class A0 star in Corvus located approximately 87 light years distant from Earth whose traditional name (Algorab) comes from the Arabic word al-ghuraab – which means “the crow.”

Epsilon Corvi is a K2 III class star that is approximately 303 light-years from Earth. The star’s traditional name, (Minkar) comes from the Arabic word almánxar, which means “the nostril of the crow.” Alpha Corvi, which is only the fifth brightest star in the constellation, is a class F0 dwarf or subdwarf that is only 48.2 light years distant. The star’s traditional name (Alchiba) is derived from the Arabic al hibaa, which means “tent.”

Corvus is also home to many Deep Sky Objects. These include the Antennae Galaxies (NGC 4038/NGC 4039), a pair of interacting galaxies that were first discovered in the late 18th century. These colliding galaxies – which are located 45 million light years from Earth – are currently in the starburst stage, meaning they are experiencing an exceptionally high rate of star forming activity.

There’s also the NGC 4027 barred spiral galaxy, which is located about 83 million light years from Earth. This galaxy is peculiar, in that one of its spiral arm extends further than the other – possibly due to a past collision with another galaxy. Finally, there’s the large planetary nebula known as NGC 4361, which is located at the center of the constellation and resembled a faint elliptical galaxy.

The barred, spiral galaxy known as NGC 4027. Credit : ESO

Finding Corvus:

Let’s start with binoculars and look down at the southern corner, where we will find Alpha Corvi – aka. Alchiba. Alchiba belongs to the spectral class F0 and has apparent magnitude +4.00. This star is suspected of being a spectroscopic binary, although this has not yet been confirmed. Now take a look at Beta Corvi – aka. Kraz. Good old Kraz is approximately 140 light-years away and is a G-type bright giant star whose apparent visual magnitude varies between 2.60 and 2.66.

Head west and look at Epsilon. Although it doesn’t look any further away, spectral class K2 III – Minkar – is 303 light-years from Earth! Need a smile? Then take a look at Gamma, aka. Geinah. How about Delta? Algorab is a spectral class A0 and is about 87 light years from our solar system.

Now get out your telescope as we explore planetary nebula, NGC 4361 (RA 12 24 5 Dec -18 48). At around magnitude 10, this greenish disc is fairly easily spotted with smaller telescopes, but the 13th stellar magnitude central star requires larger aperture to be seen. It has a very symmetrical shape that is similar to a spiral galaxy.

For galaxy fans, have a look at interacting galaxy pair, NGC 4038 and NGC 4039 – the “Ringtail Galaxy” (RA 12 01 53 Dec -18 52-3). This peculiar galaxy (also referred to as the “Antennae Galaxies”) were both discovered by Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel in 1785. Even in relatively small telescopes, you can see two long tails of stars, gas and dust thrown out of the galaxies as a result of the collision that resemble the antennae of an insect.

Map of the Corvus Constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky&Telescope magazine

As explained by Vázquez (et al.) in a 1999 study:

“The morphology of this object is complex given the highly filamentary structure of the envelope, which is confirmed to possess a low mass. The halo has a high expansion velocity that yields incompatible kinematic and evolutionary ages, unless previous acceleration of the nebular expansion is considered. However, the most remarkable result from the present observations is the detection of a bipolar outflow in NGC 4361, which is unexpected in a PN with a Population II low-mass-core progenitor. It is shown that shocks resulting from the interaction of the bipolar outflow with the outer shell are able to provide an additional heating source in this nebula.”

Most galaxies probably undergo at least one significant collision in their lifetimes. This is likely the future of our Milky Way when it collides with the Andromeda Galaxy. Two supernovae have been discovered in the galaxy: SN 2004GT and SN 2007sr. A recent study finds that these interacting galaxies are closer to the Milky Way than previously thought – at 45 million light-years instead of 65 million light-years. Geez… What’s 20 million light years between friends?

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.

Sources:

Messier 49 – the NGC 4472 Elliptical Galaxy

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at Orion’s Nebula’s “little brother”, the De Marian’s Nebula!

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 elliptical galaxy known as Messier 49 (aka. NGC 4472). Located in the southern skies in the constellation of Virgo, this galaxy is one several members of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies and is located 55.9 million light years from Earth. On a clear night, and allowing for good light conditions, it can be seen with binoculars or a small telescope, and will appear as a hazy patch in the sky.

Description:

Messier 49 is the brightest of the Virgo Cluster member galaxies, which is pretty accurate considering it’s only about 60 million light years away and may span an area as large as 160,000 light years. It is a huge system of globular clusters, much less concentrated than Virgo cluster member M87 – but a giant none the less. As Stephen E. Zep (et al) wrote in a 2000 study:

“We present new radial velocities for 87 globular clusters around the elliptical galaxy NGC 4472 and combine these with our previously published data to create a data set of velocities for 144 globular clusters around NGC 4472. We utilize this data set to analyze the kinematics of the NGC 4472 globular cluster system. The new data confirm our previous discovery that the metal-poor clusters have significantly higher velocity dispersion than the metal-rich clusters in NGC 4472. The very small angular momentum in the metal-rich population requires efficient angular momentum transport during the formation of this population, which is spatially concentrated and chemically enriched. Such angular momentum transfer can be provided by galaxy mergers, but it has not been achieved in other extant models of elliptical galaxy formation that include dark matter halos. We also calculate the velocity dispersion as a function of radius and show that it is consistent with roughly isotropic orbits for the clusters and the mass distribution of NGC 4472 inferred from X-ray observations of the hot gas around the galaxy.”

This ground-based image shows the Small Magellanic Cloud. The area of the SMIDGE survey is highlighted, as well as the position of NGC 248. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble/Digitized Sky Survey 2

However, there was something going on in the mass structure of M49 that astronomers were curious about… Something they couldn’t quite explain. Was it dark matter? As M. Lowenstein wrote in a 1992 study:

“An attempt to constrain the total mass distribution of the well-observed giant elliptical galaxy NGC 4472 is realized by constructing simultaneous equilibrium models for the gas and stars using all available relevant optical and X-ray data. The value of <?>, the emission-weighted average value of kT, derived from the Ginga spectrum, <?> = 1.9 ± 0.2 keV, can be reproduced only in hydrostatic models where nonluminous matter comprises at least 90% of the total mass. However, in general, these mass models are not consistent with observed projected stellar and globular cluster velocity dispersions at moderate radii.”

The next thing you know, nuclear outburst were discovered – the product of interaction with a neighboring galaxy. As B. Biller (et al) indicated in a 2004 study:

“We present the analysis of the Chandra ACIS observations of the giant elliptical galaxy NGC 4472. The Chandra Observatory’s arcsec resolution reveals a number of new features. Specifically: 1) an ~8 arc min streamer or arm (this corresponds to a linear size of 36 kpc) extending southwest of the galaxy and an assymetrical, somewhat truncated streamer to the northeast. Smaller, morphologically similar structures are observed in NGC 4636 and are explained as shocks from a nuclear outburst in the recent past. The larger size of the NGC 4472 streamers requires a correspondingly higher energy input compared to the NGC 4636 case. The asymmetry of the streamers may be due to the interaction of NGC 4472 with the ambient Virgo cluster gas. 2) A string of small, extended sources south of the nucleus. These sources may stem from an interaction of NGC 4472 with the galaxy UGC 7637. 3) X-ray cavities corresponding to radio lobes, where expanding radio plasma has evacuated the X-ray emitting gas. We also present a luminosity function for the X-ray point sources detected within NGC 4472 which we compare to that for other early type galaxies.”

Chandra images showing 4 of the 9 galaxies discovered (left), and an artist’s impression on showing how gas falls towards a black hole and becomes a rapidly spinning disk of matter near the center (right). Credit: NASA/Chandra

But the very best was yet to come… the discovery of a black hole! According to NASA, the results from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, combined with new theoretical calculations, provide one of the best pieces of evidence yet that many supermassive black holes are spinning extremely rapidly. The images on the left show 4 out of the 9 large galaxies included in the Chandra study, each containing a supermassive black hole in its center.

The Chandra images show pairs of huge bubbles, or cavities, in the hot gaseous atmospheres of the galaxies, created in each case by jets produced by a central supermassive black hole. Studying these cavities allows the power output of the jets to be calculated. This sets constraints on the spin of the black holes when combined with theoretical models. The Chandra images were also used to estimate how much fuel is available for each supermassive black hole, using a simple model for the way matter falls towards such an object.

The artist’s impression on the right side of the main graphic shows gas within a “sphere of influence” falling straight inwards towards a black hole before joining a rapidly spinning disk of matter near the center. Most of the material in this disk is swallowed by the black hole, but some of it is swept outwards in jets (colored blue) by quickly spinning magnetic fields close to the black hole.

Previous work with these Chandra data showed that the higher the rate at which matter falls towards these supermassive black holes, the higher their power output is in jets. However, without detailed theory the implications of this result for black hole behavior were unclear. The new study uses these Chandra results combined with leading theoretical models for the production of jets, plus general relativity, to show that the supermassive black holes in these galaxies must be spinning at close to the maximum rate. If black holes are spinning at this limit, material can be dragged around them at close to the speed of light, the speed limit from Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Atlas Image obtained of Messier 49, taken by the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS). Credit: NASA/UofMass/IPAC/Caltech/NASA/NSF/2MASS

History of Observation:

According to SEDS, M49 was the first member of the Virgo cluster of galaxies to be discovered, by Charles Messier, who cataloged it on February 19th, 1771. As he recorded in his notes at the time:

“Nebula discovered near the star Rho Virginis. One cannot see it without difficulty with an ordinary telescope of 3.5-feet [FL]. The Comet of 1779 was compared by M. Messier with this nebula on April 22 and 23: The comet and the nebula had the same light. M. Messier has reported this nebula on the chart of the route of the comet, which appeared in the volume of the Academy of the same year 1779. Seen again on April 10, 1781.” Eight years later, on April 22, 1779, on the occasion of following the comet of that year, and on the hunt for finding more nebulous objects in competition to other observers, Barnabas Oriani independently rediscovered this ‘nebula’: “Very pale and looking exactly like the comet [1779 Bode, C/1779 A1].”

In his Bedford Catalogue of 1844, Admiral William H. Smyth confused this finding with Messier’s discovery:

“A bright, round, and well-defined nebula, on the Virgin’s left shoulder; exactly on the line between Delta Virginis and Beta Leonis, 8deg, or less than half-way, from the former star. With an eyepiece magnifying 93 times, there are only two telescopic stars in the field, one of which is in the sp and the other in the sf quadrant; and the nebula has a very pearly aspect. This object was discovered by Oriani in 1771 [this is wrong: it was Messier who discovered it that year; Oriani found it only in 1779], and registered by Messier as a “faint nebula, not seen without difficulty,” with a telescope of 3 1/2 feet in length. It is a pity that this active and very assiduous astronomer could not have been furnished with one of the giant telescopes of the present days. Had he possessed efficient means, there can be no doubt of the augmentation of his useful and, in its day, unique Catalogue: a collection of objects for which sidereal astronomy must ever remain indebted to him.” This error was repeated by John Herschel in his General Catalogue of 1864 (GC), who also erroneously assigned this object to “1771 Oriani,” and also found its way into J.L.E. Dreyer’s NGC.

Let’s hope you don’t mistake it with the many other galaxies nearby!

The location of Messier 49 within the Virgo constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

Locating Messier 49:

Galaxy hopping isn’t an easy chore and it takes some practice. Starting looking for M49 about halfway between Epsilon and Beta Virginis. Use Gamma to help triangulate your position. At near magnitude 8, Messier 49 is quite binocular possible and would show under dark sky conditions as a faint, very small egg shaped fog. However, it will not show in a finderscope of a telescope – but the nearby stars will.

Use their patterns to help guide you there. Because galaxies require dark skies, M49 cannot be found under urban conditions or during moonlit nights. In telescopes as small as 70mm, it will appear as a nebulous egg shape and become brighter – but no more resolved to larger instruments. To assist in location, begin with lowest magnification and increase magnification once found to darken background field.

And here are the quick facts to help you get started!

Object Name: Messier 49
Alternative Designations: M49, NGC 4472
Object Type: Elliptical Galaxy
Constellation: Virgo
Right Ascension: 12 : 29.8 (h:m)
Declination: +08 : 00 (deg:m)
Distance: 60000 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 8.4 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 9×7.5 (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.

Sources:

Messier 41 – the NGC 2287 Open Star Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the double star known as Messier 41. 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 open star cluster known as Messier 41 (aka. M41, NGC 2287). Located in the Canis Major constellation – approximately 4,300 light years from Earth – this cluster lies just four degrees south of Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Like most open clusters, it is relatively young – 190 million years old – and contains over 100 stars in a region measuring 25 to 26 light years in diameter.

Description:

Running away from us at a speed of about 34 kilometers per second, this field of about 100 stars measures about 25 light years across. Born about 240 million years ago, it resides in space approximately 2300 light years away from our solar system. Larger aperture telescopes will reveal the presence of many red (or orange) giant stars and the hottest star in this group is a spectral type A.

View of the night sky in North Carolina, showing the constellations of Orion, Hyades, Canis Major and Canis Minor. Credit: NASA

As G.L.H. Harris (et al) explained in a 1993 study:

“We have obtained photoelectric UBV photometry for 100 stars, uvbyb photometry for 39 stars and MK spectral types for 80 stars in the field of NGC 2287. After combination with data from other sources, several interesting cluster properties are apparent. Both the UBV and uvbyb photometry point to a small but nonzero reddening, while our spectral types confirm previous results indicating a high binary frequency for the cluster. Based on our spectral and photometric data for the cluster members, we find a minimum binary frequency of 40% and discuss the possibility that the results may imply a binary frequency closer to 80%. The cluster age is found to be based on both the main-sequence turnoff and the red giant distribution; the width of the turn up region can probably be explained by a combination of duplicity and a range in stellar rotation.”

But there’s more than just red giant stars and various spectral types to be found hiding in Messier 41. There’s at least two white dwarf stars, too. As P.D Dobbie explained in a 2009 study:

“[W]e use our estimates of their cooling times together with the cluster ages to constrain the lifetimes and masses of their progenitor stars. We examine the location of these objects in initial mass-final mass space and find that they now provide no evidence for substantial scatter in initial mass-final mass relation (IFMR) as suggested by previous investigations. This form is generally consistent with the predictions of stellar evolutionary models and can aid population synthesis models in reproducing the relatively sharp drop observed at the high mass end of the main peak in the mass distribution of white dwarfs.”

Messier 41 and Collinder 121. Image: Wikisky

As you view Messier 41, you’ll be impressed with its wide open appearance… and knowing it’s simply what happens to star clusters as they get passed around our galaxy. As Giles Bergond (et al.) stated in their 2001 study:

“Taking into account observational biases, namely the galaxy clustering and differential extinction in the Galaxy, we have associated these stellar overdensities with real open cluster structures stretched by the galactic gravitational field. As predicted by theory and simulations, and despite observational limitations, we detected a general elongated (prolate) shape in a direction parallel to the galactic Plane, combined with tidal tails extended perpendicularly to it. This geometry is due both to the static galactic tidal field and the heating up of the stellar system when crossing the Disk. The time varying tidal field will deeply affect the cluster dynamical evolution, and we emphasize the importance of adiabatic heating during the Disk-shocking. During the 10-20 Z-oscillations experienced by a cluster before its dissolution in the Galaxy, crossings through the galactic Disk contribute to at least 15% of the total mass loss. Using recent age estimations published for open clusters, we find a destruction time-scale of about 600 million years for clusters in the solar neighborhood.”

That means we’ve only got another 360 million years to observe it before it’s completely gone (though some estimates place it at about 500 million). Either way, this star cluster is destined to disappear, perhaps before we are!

History of Observation:

Messier 41 was “possibly” recorded by Aristotle about 325 B.C. as a patch in the Milky Way… quite understandable since it is very much within unaided eye visibility from a dark sky location. Said Aristotle:

“.. some of the fixed stars have tails. And for this we need not rely only on the evidence of the Egyptians who say they have observed it; we have observed it also ourselves. For one of the stars in the thigh of the Dog had a tail, though a dim one: if you looked hard at it the light used to become dim, but to less intent glance it was brighter.”

Messier 41 and Sirius. Image: Wikisky

However, Giovanni Batista Hodierna was the first to catalog it in 1654, and the star cluster became a bit more astronomically known when John Flamsteed independently found it again on February 16, 1702. Doing his duty, Charles Messier also logged it:

“In the night of January 16 to 17, 1765, I have observed below Sirius and near the star Rho of Canis Major a star cluster; when examining it with a night refractor, this cluster appeared nebulous; instead, there is nothing but a cluster of small stars. I have compared the middle with the nearest known star; and I found its right ascension of 98d 58′ 12″, and its declination 20d 33′ 50″ north.”

Following suit, other historical astronomers also observed M41 – including Sir John Herschel to include it in the NGC catalog. While none found it particularly thrilling… their notes range from a “coarse collection of stars” to “very large, bright, little compressed”, perhaps you will feel much differently about this easy, bright target!

Locating Messier 41:

Finding Messier 41 isn’t very difficult for binoculars and small telescopes – all you have to know is the brightest star in the northern hemisphere, Sirius, and south! Simply aim your optics at Sirius and move due south approximately four degrees. That’s about one standard field of view for binoculars, about one field of view for the average telescope finderscope and about 6 fields of view for the average wide field, low power eyepiece.

The location of Messier 41 in the Canis Major constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine/Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg

Because Messier 41 is a large star cluster, remember to use lowest magnification to get the best effect. Higher magnification can always be used once the star cluster is identified to study individual members. M41 is quite bright and easily resolved and makes a wonderful target for urban skies and moonlit nights!

Because you understand what’s there…

Object Name: Messier 41
Alternative Designations: M41, NGC 2287
Object Type: Open Galactic Star Cluster
Constellation: Canis Major
Right Ascension: 06 : 46.0 (h:m)
Declination: -20 : 44 (deg:m)
Distance: 2.3 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 4.5 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 38.0 (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 to sure to check out our complete Messier Catalog. And for more information, check out the SEDS Messier Database.

Sources:

The Canes Venatici Constellation

Welcome back to Constellation Friday! Today, in honor of the late and great Tammy Plotner, we will be dealing with Canes Venatici 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. Today, this list has been expanded to include the 88 constellations recognized by the IAU.

One of these is known as Canes Venatici, a small northern constellation that is bordered by Ursa Major to the north and west, Coma Berenices to the south, and Boötes to the east. Canes Venatici belongs to the Ursa Major family of constellations, along with Boötes, Camelopardalis, Coma Berenices, Corona Borealis, Draco, Leo Minor, Lynx, Ursa Major, and Ursa Minor.

Name and Meaning:

The small northern constellation of Canes Venatici represents the hunting dogs – Chara and Asterion – of Boötes. It is also one of three constellations that represent dogs, along with Canis Major and Canis Minor. Given its comparatively recent origin, there is no real mythology associated with this asterism. However, it does have an interesting history.

Canes Venatici depicted in Hevelius's star atlas. Note that, per the conventions of the time, the image is mirrored. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Atlas Coelestis
Canes Venatici depicted in Hevelius’s star atlas. Note that, per the conventions of the time, the image is mirrored. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Atlas Coelestis

History of Observation:

During Classic Antiquity, the stars of Canes Venatici did not appear very brightly in the night sky. As such, they were listed by Ptolemy as unfigured stars below the constellation Ursa Major in the Almagest, rather than as a distinct constellation. During the Middle Ages, the identification of these stars as being the dogs of Boötes arose due to a mistranslation.

Some of the component stars in the nearby constellation of Boötes (which was known as the “herdsman”) were traditionally described as representing his cudgel. When the Almagest was translated from Greek to Arabic, the translator – the Arab astronomer Hunayn ibn Ishaq – did not know the Arabic word for cudgel.

As such, he chose the closest translation in Arabic – “al-`asa dhat al-kullab” -which literally means “the spearshaft having a hook” (possibly in reference to a shepherd’s crook). When the Arabic text was later translated into Latin, the translator mistook the Arabic word “kullab” for “kilab” – which means “dogs” – and wrote the name as hastile habens canes (“spearshaft having dogs”).

This representation of Boötes having two dogs remained popular and became official when, in 1687, Johannes Hevelius decided to designate them as a separate constellation. The northern of the two hunting dogs was named Asterion (‘little star’) while the southern dog was named Chara – from the Greek word for ‘joy’,.

Canes Venatici can be seen in the orientation they appear to the eyes in this 1825 star chart from Urania's Mirror. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Library of Congress
Canes Venatici can be seen in the orientation they appear to the eyes in this 1825 star chart from Urania’s Mirror. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Library of Congress

Notable Features:

The constellation’s brightest star is Cor Caroli, which is perhaps one of the most splendid of all colorful double stars. The name literally means “Charles’ heart”, and was named by Sir Charles Scarborough in honor of Charles I – who was executed in the aftermath of the English Civil War. The star is also associated with Charles II of England, who was restored to the throne after the interregnum following his father’s death.

Cor Caroli is a binary star with a combined apparent magnitude of 2.81 which marks the northern vertex of the Diamond of Virgo asterism. The two stars are 19.6 arc seconds apart and are easily resolved in small telescopes and steady binoculars. The system lies approximately 110 light years from Earth. It’s main star, a² Canum Venaticorum, is the prototype of a class of Spectral Type A0 variable stars (the so-called a² Canum Venaticorum stars).

These stars have a strong stellar magnetic field, which is believed to produce starspots of enormous extent. Due to these starspots, the brightness of a² Canum Venaticorum stars varies considerably during their rotation. Their brightness also varies between magnitude +2.84 and +2.98 with a period of 5.47 days.  The companion, a¹ Canum Venaticorum (a spectral type F0 star), is considerably fainter at +5.5 magnitude.

Y CVn, and a simulation of what it would look like close-up, created using Celestia. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Kirk39
Y CVn, “La Superba”, and a simulation of what it would look like close-up, created using Celestia. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Kirk39

Next up is Y Canum Venaticorum (Y CVn), which was named “La Superba” by 19th century astronomer Angelo Secchi for its uncommonly beautiful red color. This name was certainly appropriate, since it is  one of the reddest stars in the sky, and one the brightest of the giant red “carbon stars”.

La Superba is the brightest J-star in the sky, a very rare category of carbon stars that contain large amounts of carbon-13. Its surface temperature is believed to be about 2800 K (~2526 °C; 4580 °F), making it one of the coldest  true stars known. Its appearance, temperature and composition are all indications that it is currently in the Red Giant phase of its life-cycle.

Y CVn is almost never visible to the naked eye since most of its output is outside the visible spectrum. Yet, when infrared radiation is considered, Y CVn has a luminosity 4400 times that of the Sun, and its radius is approximately 2 AU. If it were placed at the position of our sun, the star’s surface would extend beyond the orbit of Mars.

Canes Venatici is also home to several Deep Sky Objects. For starters, there’s the tremendous globular cluster known as Messier 3 (M3). Messier 3 has an apparent magnitude of 6.2, making it visible to the naked eye. It was first resolved into stars by William Herschel around 1784. This cluster is one of the largest and brightest, made up of around 500,000 stars, and is located about 33,900 light-years away from our solar system.

The 51st entry in Charles Messier's famous catalog is perhaps the original spiral nebula--a large galaxy with a well defined spiral structure also cataloged as NGC 5194. Over 60,000 light-years across, M51's spiral arms and dust lanes clearly sweep in front of its companion galaxy, NGC 5195. Image data from the Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys was reprocessed to produce this alternative portrait of the well-known interacting galaxy pair. The processing sharpened details and enhanced color and contrast in otherwise faint areas, bringing out dust lanes and extended streams that cross the small companion, along with features in the surroundings and core of M51 itself. The pair are about 31 million light-years distant. Not far on the sky from the handle of the Big Dipper, they officially lie within the boundaries of the small constellation Canes Venatici. Image Credit: NASA
Messier 51, aka. the Whirlpool Galaxy, is a spiral nebula – a large galaxy with a well defined spiral structure located over 60,000 light-years across. Credit: NASA

Then there’s the Whirlpool Galaxy, also known as Messier 51 or NGC 5194. This  interacting, grand-design spiral galaxy is located at a distance of approximately 23 million light-years from Earth. It is one of the most famous spiral galaxies in the night sky, for both its grace and beauty. The galaxy and its companion (NGC 5195) are easily observed by amateur telescopes, and the two galaxies may even be seen with larger binoculars.

Canes Venatici is also home of the Sunflower Galaxy (aka. Messier 63 and NGC 5055), an unbarred spiral galaxy consisting of a central galactic disc surrounded by many short spiral arm segments. It is part of the M51 galaxy group, which also includes the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51). In the mid-1800s, Lord Rosse identified the spiral structure within the galaxy, making this one of the first galaxies in which “spiral nebulae” were identified.

Now hop over to the barred spiral galaxy known as Messier 94 for some comparison. It was discovered by Pierre Méchain in 1781 and catalogued by Charles Messier two days later. Although some references describe M94 as a barred spiral galaxy, the “bar” structure appears to be more oval-shaped. The galaxy is also notable in that it has two ring structures, an inner ring with a diameter of 70″ and an outer ring with a diameter of 600″.

These rings appear to form at resonance locations within the disk of the galaxy. The inner ring is the site of strong star formation activity and is sometimes referred to as a starburst ring. This star formation is fueled by gas that is dynamically driven into the ring by the inner oval-shaped bar-like structure.

Messier 63, also known as the Sunflower Galaxy, seen here in a new image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA/HST
Messier 63, also known as the Sunflower Galaxy, seen here in an image from the  Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA/HST

For a completely different galaxy, try Messier 106 (NGC 4258). This spiral galaxy is about 22 to 25 million light-years away from Earth. It is also a Seyfert II galaxy, which means that due to x-rays and unusual emission lines detected, it is suspected that part of the galaxy is falling into a supermassive black hole in the center. Nearby NGC 4217 is a possible companion galaxy.

The constellation does not have any stars with known planets, and there is one meteor shower associated with the constellation – the Canes Venaticids.

Finding Canes Venatici:

While it basically consists of only two bright stars, the Canes Venatici constellation is still fairly easy to locate and is bordered by Ursa Major, Boötes and Coma Berenices. It can be spotted with the naked eye on a clear night where light conditions are favorable. However, for those using binoculars, finderscopes and small telescopes, the constellation has much to offer the amateur astronomer and stargazer.

The location of the Canes Venatici constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky&Telescope magazine
The location of the Canes Venatici constellation. Credit: IAU/Sky&Telescope magazine

It’s brightest star, Cor Calroli can be found at RA 12h 56m 01.6674s Dec +38° 19′ 06.167″, while beautiful Y Canum Venaticorum (aka. “La Superba”) can be seen at RA 12f 45m 07s Dec +45° 26′ 24″. And M51 is easy to find by following the easternmost star of the Big Dipper, Eta Ursae Majoris, and going 3.5° southeast. Its declination is +47°, so it is circumpolar for observers located above 43°N latitude.

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.

Sources:

Messier 23 – The NGC 6494 Open Star Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the Messier 23 open star cluster. Enjoy!

Back in 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 these objects so that other astronomers wouldn’t make the same mistake. Consisting of 100 objects, the Messier Catalog has come to be viewed as a major milestone in the study of Deep Space Objects.

One of these objects is Messier 23 (aka. NGC 6494), a large open star cluster that is located in the constellation Sagittarius. Given its luminosity, it can be found quite easily in the rich star fields of the summer Milky Way using small telescopes and even binoculars.

Description:

Located some 2,150 light years (659 Parsecs) away from Earth, this vast cloud of 176 confirmed stars stretches across 15 to 20 light years of space. At an estimated 220 to 300 million years old, Messier 23 is on the “senior citizen” list of galactic open clusters in our galaxy. At this age, its hottest stars reach spectral type B9, and it even contains a few blue straggler candidates.

Messier 23. Atlas Image mosaic obtained as part of the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS), a joint project of the University of Massachusetts and the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center/California Institute of Technology, funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Science Foundation.
Mosaic image obtained as part of the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS). Credit: UofM/IPAC/Caltech/NASA/NSF

Given that M23 has spent many centuries sweeping through the interstellar medium, astronomers have wondered how this would affect its metal content. Using UBV photometry, astronauts examined the metallicity of M23, and determined that it had no discernible effect. As W.L. Sanders wrote of the cluster in 1990:

“UBV photometric observations of 176 stars in the galactic cluster NGC 6494 are presented and analyzed. The effect of a gas poor environment on the metal abundance of NGC 6494 is studied. It is determined that the metallicity of NGC 6494, which has a delta(U – B) value = + 0.02, is not affected by the interarm region in which it dwelled.”

At the same time, astronomers have discovered that some of M23’s older stars – the red giants – are suffering mass loss. As G. Barbaro (et al.) of the Istituto di Fisica dell’Universita put it in 1969:

“A statistical research on evolved stars beyond hydrogen exhaustion is performed by comparing the H-R diagrams of about 60 open clusters with a set of isochronous curves without mass loss derived from Iben’s evolutionary tracks and time scales for Population I stars. Interpreting the difference in magnitude between the theoretical positions thus calculated and the observed ones as due to mass loss, when negative, the results indicate that this loss may be conspicuous only for very massive and red stars. However, a comparison with an analogous work of Lindoff reveals that the uncertainties connected with the bolometric and color corrections may invalidate by a large amount the conclusions which might be drawn from such research.”

Close-up image of the core of M23, showing some of its brightest member stars. Credit: Sharp/NOAO/AURA/NSF
Close-up of the core of M23, showing some of its brightest member stars. Credit: Sharp/NOAO/AURA/NSF

However, the most recent studies show that we have to determine radial velocities before we can really associate red giants as being cluster members. J.C. Mermilliod of Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de l’Ecole wrote in his 2008 study, “Red giants in open clusters“:

“The present material, combined with recent absolute proper motions, will permit various investigation of the galactic distribution and space motions of a large sample of open clusters. However, the distance estimates still remain the weakest part of the necessary data. This paper is the last one in this series devoted to the study of red giants in open clusters based on radial velocities obtained with the CORAVEL instruments.”

History of Observation:

This neat and tidy galactic star cluster was one of the original discoveries of Charles Messier. As he recorded of the cluster when first viewing it, which occurred on June 20th, 1764:

“In the night of June 20 to 21, 1764, I determined the position of a cluster of small stars which is situated between the northern extremity of the bow of Sagittarius and the right foot of Ophiuchus, very close to the star of sixth magnitude, the sixty-fifth of the latter constellation [Oph], after the catalog of Flamsteed: These stars are very close to each other; there is none which one can see easily with an ordinary refractor of 3 feet and a half, and which was taken for these small stars. The diameter of all is about 15 minutes of arc. I have determined its position by comparing the middle with the star Mu Sagittarii: I have found its right ascension of 265d 42′ 50″, and its declination of 18d 45′ 55″, south.”

The M23 open star cluster, as it appears in the night sky, flanked by M8 (Lagoon), M16 (Eagle), M17 (Omega), M20 (Trifid) and other deep sky objects. Credit & Copyright: Fernando Cabrerizo/NASA
The M23 open star cluster, as it appears in the night sky (a patch of red), flanked by M8 (Lagoon), M16 (Eagle), M17 (Omega), M20 (Trifid) and other deep sky objects. Credit & Copyright: Fernando Cabrerizo/NASA

While William Herschel did not publish his observations of Messier’s objects, he was still an avid observer. So of course, he had to look at this cluster, and wrote the following observations in his personal notes:

“A cluster of beautiful scattered, large stars, nearly of equal magnitudes (visible in my finder), it extends much farther than the field of the telescope will take in, and in the finder seems to be a nebula of a lengthened form extending to about half a degree.”

In July of 1835, Admiral Smyth would make an observation of Messier 23 and once again add his colorful remarks to the timeline:

“A loose cluster in the space between Ophiuchus’s left leg and the bow of Sagittarius. This is an elegant sprinkling of telescopic stars over the whole field, under a moderate magnifying power; the most clustering portion is oblique, in the direction sp to nf [south preceding to north following, SW to NE], with a 7th-magnitude star in the latter portion. The place registered it that of a neat pair, of the 9th and 10th magnitudes, of a lilac hue, and about 12″ apart. This object was discovered by Messier 1764, and it precedes a rich out-cropping of the Milky Way. The place is gained by differentiating the cluster with Mu Sagittarii, from which it bears north-west, distant about 5 deg, the spot being directed to by a line from Sigma on the shoulder, through Mu at the tip of the bow.”

Remember when observing Messier 23 that it won’t slap you in the face like many objects. Basically, it looks like a stellar scattering of freckles across the face of the sky when fully-resolved. It’s actually one of those objects that’s better to view with binoculars and low power telescopes.

messier-23-location

Locating Messier 23:

M23 can be easily found with binoculars about a finger’s width north and two finger widths west of Mu Sagittarii. Or, simply draw a mental line between the top star in the teapot lid (Lambda) and Xi Serpentis. You’ll find a slight compression in the star field about halfway between these two stars that shows up as an open cluster with binoculars.

Using a finderscope, the object will appear nicely as a hazy spot. And for those using telescopes of any size, you’ll need to use fairly low magnification to help set this cluster apart from the surrounding star field, and it will resolve well to almost all instruments.

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

Object Name: Messier 23
Alternative Designations: M23, NGC 6494
Object Type: Open Star Cluster
Constellation: Sagittarius
Right Ascension: 17 : 56.8 (h:m)
Declination: -19 : 01 (deg:m)
Distance: 2.15 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 6.9 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 27.0 (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 to sure to check out our complete Messier Catalog. And for more information, check out the SEDS Messier Database.

Sources:

Messier 22 – The Sagittarius Nebula

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the Sagittarius Cluster (aka. Messier 22). Enjoy!

Back in 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 these objects so that others wouldn’t make the same mistake. Consisting of 100 objects, this “Messier Catalog” would come to be viewed by posterity as a major milestone in the study of Deep Space Objects.

One of these objects is the Sagittarius Cluster, otherwise known as Messier 22 (and NGC 6656). This elliptical globular cluster, is located in the constellation Sagittarius, near the Galactic bulge region. It is one of the brightest globulars visible in the night sky, and was therefore one of the first of its kind to be discovered and later studied.

Description:

Located around 10,400 light years from our Solar System, in the direction of Sagittarius, M22 occupied a volume of space that is 200 light years in diameter and is receding away from us at 149 kilometers per second. M22 has a lot in common with many other clusters of its type, which includes being a gravitationally bound sphere of stars, and that most of its stars are all about the same age – about 12 billion years old.

Messier 22, showing its proximity to Messier 28 and Kaus Borealis. Credit: Wikisky
Messier 22, showing its proximity to Messier 28 and Kaus Borealis. Credit: Wikisky

It is part of our galactic halo, and may once have been part of a galaxy that our Milky Way cannibalized. But it’s there that the similarities end. For example, it consists of at least 70,000 individual stars, only 32 of which are variable stars. It also spans an incredible 32 arc minutes in the sky and ranks as the fourth brightness of all the known globular clusters in our galaxy.

And four must be its lucky number, because it is also one of only four globular clusters known to contain a planetary nebula. Recent Hubble Space Telescope investigations of Messier 22 have led to the discovery of an astonishing discovery. For starters, in 1999, astronomers discovered six planet-sized objects floating around inside the cluster that were about 80 times the mass of Earth!

Using a technique known as microlensing, which measures the way gravity bends the light of the background stars, the Hubble Space Telescope was able to determine the existence of the gas giant. Even though the Hubble can’t resolve them because the angle at which the light bends is about 100 times smaller than the telescope’s angular resolution, scientist know they are there because the gravity “powers up” the starlight, making it brighter each time a body passes in front of it.

Because a microlensing event is very rare and totally unpredictable, the Hubble team needed to monitor 83,000 stars every three days for nearly four months. Luckily, a sharp peak in brightness was all the proof they needed that they were on the right track.

The center of the globular cluster Messier 22, also known as M22, as observed by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: ESA/HST/NASA
The center of the globular cluster Messier 22, also known as M22, as observed by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: ESA/HST/NASA

Said Kailash Sahu, of the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD, of the discovery in 2007: “Hubble’s excellent sharpness allowed us to make this remarkable new type of observation, successfully demonstrating our ability to see very small objects. This holds tremendous potential for further searches for dark, low-mass objects.”

During their study time, the Hubble team caught six microlensing events that lasted less than 20 hours and one which endured for 18 days. By calculating the times of the eclipses and the spikes in brightness, astronomers could then estimate the mass of the object passing in front of the star. These wandering rogues might be planets torn away from their parent stars by the huge amounts of gravitational influence from so many closely packed suns – or (in the case of the long event) simply a smaller mass star passing in front of another.

They could be brown dwarfs, or even a totally new type of object. As co-investigator Nino Panagia of the European Space Agency and Space Telescope Science Institute said: “Since we know that globular clusters like M22 are very old, this result opens new and exciting opportunities for the discovery and study of planet-like objects that formed in the early universe,”

Two black holes were also discovered in M22 and confirmed by the Chandra X-ray telescope in 2012. The objects have between 10 and 20 solar masses, and their discovery suggests that there may be 5 to 100 black holes within the cluster (and maybe some multiple black holes as well). The presence of black holes and their interaction with the stars of M22 could explain the cluster’s unusually large central region.

These are optical images of M22 and the candidate companion stars to the radio sources M22-VLA1 and M22-VLA2: the globular cluster M22, on the left, and the location of the radio sources on archival Hubble images. Credit: Doug Matthews/Adam Block/NOA/AURA/NSF/HST/NASA/ESA
Optical images of M22 and the candidate companion stars to the radio sources M22-VLA1 and M22-VLA2. Credit: Doug Matthews/Adam Block/NOA/AURA/NSF/HST/NASA/ESA

Other objects of interesting include two black holes – M22-VLA1 and M22-VLA2 – both of which are part of binary star systems. Each has a companion star and is pulling matter from it. This gas and dust, in turn, forms an accretion disk around each black hole, creating emissions that scientists used to confirm their existence.

Messier 22 is one of only four known globular clusters that contain a planetary nebula. This nebula – catalogued as GJJC1 or IRAS 18333-2357 – is rather small and young, being only 3 arcseconds in diameter and 6,000 years old. It was discovered in 1986 using the infrared satellite IRAS, and identified as a planetary nebula in 1989.

History of Observation:

Chances are, magnificent Messier 22 was probably the first globular cluster to ever be recorded in the history of astronomy, most likely by Abraham Ihle in 1665. Over the years it has been included in many historic observations, including Edmund Halley’s list of 6 objects published 1715, and observed by De Chéseaux (his Number 17) and Le Gentil, as well as by Abbe Nicholas Louis de la Caille, who included it in his catalog of southern objects (as Lacaille I.12).

Atlas image mosaic of Messier 22 obtained as part of the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS), a joint project of the University of Massachusetts and the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center/California Institute of Technology. Credit: NASA/NSF
Atlas image mosaic of Messier 22 obtained as part of the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS). Credit:UoM/IPAC/Caltech/NASA/NSF

However, it was Charles Messier who made it famous when he cataloged it as M22 on June 5th, 1764. As he said of the object at the time:

“I have observed a nebula situated a bit below the ecliptic, between the head and the bow of Sagittarius, near the star of seventh magnitude, the twenty-fifth of that constellation, according to the catalog of Flamsteed. That nebula didn’t appear to me to contain any star, although I have examined it with a good Gregorian telescope which magnified 104 times: it is round, and one sees it very well with an ordinary refractor of 3 feet and a half; its diameter is about 6 minutes of arc. I have determined its position by comparing with the star Lambda Sagittarii: its right ascension has been concluded as 275d 28′ 39″, and its declination as 24d 6′ 11”. It was Abraham Ihle, a German, who discovered this nebula in 1665, when observing Saturn. M. le Gentil has examined it also, and he has made an engraving of the configuration in the volume of the Memoirs of the Academy, for the year 1759, page 470. He observed it on August 29, 1747, under good weather, with a refractor of 18 feet length: He also observed it on July 17, and on other days. “It always appeared to me,” he says, “very irregular in its figure, hair and distributing in space of rays of light all over its diameter.”

While Messier’s description is a wonder, let us remember that he was a comet hunter by profession. Once more, it was the observer Admiral Smythto whom we are indebted for the most detailed and vivid description of the cluster:

“A fine globular cluster, outlying that astral stream, the Via Lactea [Milky Way], in the space between the Archer’s head and bow, not far from the point of the winter solstice, and midway between Mu and Sigma Sagittarii. It consists of very minute and thickly condensed particles of light, with a group of small stars preceding by 3m, somewhat in a crucial form. Halley ascribes the discovery of this in 1665, to Abraham Ihle, the German; but it has been thought this name should have been Abraham Hill, who was one of the first council of the Royal Society, and was wont to dabble with astronomy. Hevelius, however, appears to have noticed it previous to 1665, so that neither Ihle nor Hill can be supported.

“In August, 1747, it was carefully drawn by Le Gentil, as seen with an 18-foot telescope, which drawing appears in the Mémoires de l’Académie for 1759. In this figure three stars accompany the cluster, and he remarks that two years afterwards he did not see the preceding and central one: I, however, saw it very plainly in 1835. In the description he says, “Elle m’a toujours parue tres-irrégulière dans sa figure, chevelue, et rependant des espèces de rayons de lumière tout autout de son diamètre.” This passage, I quote, “as in duty bound;” but from familiarity with the object itself, I cannot say that I clearly understand how or why his telescope exhibited these “espèces de rayons.” Messier, who registered it in 1764, says nothing about them, merely observing that it is a nebula without a star, of a round form; and Sir William Herschel, who first resolved it, merely describes it as a circular cluster, with an estimated profundity of the 344th order. Sir John Herschel recommends it as a capital test for trying the space-penetrating power of a telescope.

“This object is a fine specimen of the compression on which the nebula-theory is built. The globular systems of stars appear thicker in the middle than they would do if these stars were all at equal distances from each other; they must, therefore, be condensed toward the centre. That the stars should be accidentally disposed is too improbable a supposition to be admitted; whence Sir William Herschel supposes that they are thus brought together by their mutual attractions, and that the gradual condensation towards the centre must be received as proof of a central power of such kind.”

Messier 22 location. Image: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)
The location of Messier 22 in the night sky. Credit: IAU/Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

Locating Messier 22:

From its position almost on the ecliptic plane, bright globular cluster M22 is easy to find in optics of all sizes. The most important clue is simply identifying the Sagittarius “teapot” shape. Once you’ve located it, just choose the “lid” star, Lambda (Kaus Borealis) and look about a fingerwidth (2 degrees) due northeast. In binoculars, if you center on Lambda, M22 will appear in the 10:00 region of your field of view.

In a finderscope, you will need to hop from Lambda northeast to 24 Sagittari and you’ll see it as a faint fuzzy nearby also to the northeast. From a dark sky location, Messier Object 22 can also sometimes be spotted with the unaided eye! No matter what size optics you use, this large, very luminous ball of stars is quite appealing. A joy to binocular users and an exercise in resolution to telescopes.

And here are the quick facts to help you get started:

Object Name: Messier 22
Alternative Designations: M22, NGC 6656
Object Type: Class VII Globular Star Cluster
Constellation: Sagittarius
Right Ascension: 18 : 36.4 (h:m)
Declination: -23 : 54 (deg:m)
Distance: 10.4 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 5.1 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 32.0 (arc min)

Go on… Magnificent Messier 22 is waiting for you to appreciate it!

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.

Sources: