The Cygnus Constellation

Welcome to another edition of Constellation Friday! Today, in honor of the late and great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the “Swan” – the Cygnus 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 the constellations identified by Ptolemy was Cygnus, otherwise known as “the Swan”. The constellation is easy to find in the sky because it features a well-known asterism known as the Northern Cross. Cygnus was first catalogued the by Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the 2nd century CE and is today one of the 88 recognized by the IAU. It is bordered by the constellations of Cepheus, Draco, Lyra, Vulpecula, Pegasus and Lacerta.

Name and Meaning:

Because the pattern of stars so easily resembles a bird in flight, Cygnus the “Swan” has a long and rich mythological history. To the ancient Greeks, it was at one time Zeus disguising himself to win over Leda, and eventually father Gemini, Helen of Troy, and Clytemnestra. Or perhaps it is poor Orpheus, musician and muse of the gods, who when he died was transformed into a swan and placed in the stars next to his beloved lyre.

Artist’s conception of what Cygnus’ figure looks like, against the backdrop of stars that make up the constellation. Credit: Wendy Stenzel (first published on NASA Kepler website)

It could be king Cycnus, a relative of Phaethon, son of Apollo, who crashed dear old dad’s fiery sky chariot and died. Cygcus was believed to have driven up and down the starry river so many times looking for Phaethon’s remains that he was finally transformed into stars. No matter what legend you choose, Cygnus is a fascinating place… and filled with even more fascinating areas to visit!

History of Observation:

Because of its importance in ancient Greek mythology and astrology, the sprawling constellation of Cygnus was one of Ptolemy’s original 48 constellations. To Hindu astronomers, the Cygnus constellation is also associated with the “Brahma Muhurta” (“Moment of the Universe”). This period, which lasts from 4:24 AM to 5:12 AM, is considered to be the best time to start the day.

Cygnus is also highly significant to the folklore and mythology of many people in Polynesia, who also viewed it as a separate constellation. These include the people of Tonga, the Tuamatos people, the Maori (New Zealand) and the people of the Society Islands. Today, Cygnus is one of the official 88 modern constellations recognized by the IAU.

Notable Objects:

Flying across the sky in a grand position against the backdrop of the Milky Way, Cygnus consists of 6 bright stars which form an asterism of a cross comprised of 9 main stars and there are 84 Bayer/Flamsteed designated stars within its confines. It’s most prominent star, Deneb (Alpha Cygni), takes it name from the Arabic word dhaneb, which is derived from the Arabic phrase Dhanab ad-Dajajah, which means “the tail of the hen”.

Cygnus as depicted in Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c.1825. Surrounding it are Lacerta, Vulpecula and Lyra. Credit: Sidney Hall/US Library of Congress

Deneb is a blue-white supergiant belonging to the spectral class A2 Ia, and is located approximately 1,400 light years from Earth. In addition to being the brightest star in Cygnus, it is one of the most luminous stars known. Being almost 60,000 times more luminous than our Sun and about 20 Solar masses, it is also one of the largest white stars known.

Deneb serves as a prototype for a class of variable stars known as the Alpha Cygni variables, whose brightness and spectral type fluctuate slightly as a result of non-radial fluctuations of the star’s surface. Deneb has stopped fusing hydrogen in its core and is expected to explode as a supernova within the next few million years. Together with the stars of Altair and Vega, Deneb forms the Summer Triangle, a prominent asterism in the summer sky.

Next up is Gamma Cygni (aka. Sadr), whose name comes from the Arabic word for “the chest”. It is also sometimes known by its Latin name, Pectus Gallinae, which means “the hen’s chest.” This star belongs to the spectral class F8 lad, making it a blue-white supergiant, and is located approximately 1,800 light years from Earth.

It can easily seen in the night sky at the intersection of the Northern Cross thanks to its apparent magnitude of 2.23, which makes it one of the brightest stars that can be seen in the night sky. It is also believed to be only about 12 million years old and consumes its nuclear fuel more rapidly because of its mass (12 Solar masses).

Gamma Cygni (Sadr) is surrounded by a diffuse emission nebula, IC 1318, also known as the Sadr region or the Gamma Cygni region. Credit: Eric Larsen

Then there’s Epsilon Cygni (ak. Glenah), an orange giant of the spectral class K0 III that is 72.7 light years distant. It’s traditional name comes from the Arabic word janah, which means “the wing” (this name is shared with Gamma Corvi, a star in the Corvus constellation). It is 62 times more luminous than the Sun and measures 11 Solar radii.

Delta Cygni (Rukh), is a triple star system in Cygnus, which is located about 165 light years away. The system consists of two stars lying close together and a third star located a little further from the main pair. The brightest component is a blue-white fast-rotating giant belonging to the spectral class B9 III. The star’s closer companion is a yellow-white star belonging to the spectral class F1 V, while the third component is an orange giant.

Last, there’s Beta Cygni (aka. Albireo) which is only the fifth brightest star in the constellation Cygnus, despite its designation. This binary star system, which appears as a single star to the naked eye, is approximately 380 light-years distant. The traditional name is the result of multiple translations and misunderstandings of the original Arabic name, minqar al-dajaja (“the hen’s beak”). It is one of the stars that form the Northern Cross.

The binary system consists of a yellow star which is itself a close binary star that cannot be resolved as two separate objects. Its second star is a fainter blue fast-rotating companion star with an apparent magnitude of 5.82 that is located 35 arc seconds apart from its primary.

Albireo A, the primary star of Beta Cygni (which is itself a binary system). Credit: Henryk Kowalewski

Cygnus is also home to a number of Deep Sky Objects. These include Messier 29 (NGC 6913), an open star cluster that is about 10 million years old and located about 4,000 light years from Earth. It can be spotted with binoculars a short distance away from Gamma Cygni – 1.7 degrees to the south and a little east.

Next up is Messier 39 (NGC 7092), another open star cluster that is located about 800 light-years away and is between 200 and 300 million years old. All the stars observed in this cluster are in their main sequence phase and the brightest ones will soon evolve to the red giant stage. The cluster can be found two and a half degrees west and a degree south of the star Pi-2 Cygni.

There is also the Fireworks Galaxy (NGC 6946), an intermediate spiral galaxy that is approximately 22.5 million light-years distant. The galaxy is located near the border of the constellation Cepheus and lies close to the galactic plane, where causes it to become obscured by the interstellar matter of the Milky Way.

Then there’s the famous X-ray source known as Cygnus X-1, which is one of the strongest that can be seen from Earth. Cygnus X-1 is notable for being the first X-ray source to be identified as a black hole candidate, with a mass 8.7 times that of the Sun. It orbits a blue supergiant variable star some 6,100 light-years away, which is one of two stars form a binary system.

Over time, an accretion disk of material brought from the star by a stellar wind has formed around Cygnus X-1, which is the source of its X-ray emissions.

Finding Cygnus:

Cygnus is visible to all observers at latitudes between +90° and -40° and is best seen at culmination during the month of September.  For a period of 15 days around the peak date of August 20, watch for the Kappa Cygnid meteor shower. This annual meteor shower has a radiant near the bright star Deneb and an average fall rate of about 12 meteors per hour. It is noted to have many bright fire balls called “bolides” and the best time to watch is when the constellation is directly overhead.

Because Cygus is so rich in things to visit, we shall only touch very briefly on just a few. Let’s begin with our unaided eye as we take a look at the brightest star of the constellation, Alpha Cygni – Deneb. Here we have not only an extremely luminous blue super giant star – but a pulsing variable star, too. Its changes are minor – only about 1/10 of a stellar magnitude, but Deneb is its own prototype.

Its stellar oscillations are very complex, consisting of multiple pulsation frequencies as well as a fundamental one. This means changes in brightness occur between 5 and 10 days apart, but that’s a good thing. If the changes weren’t small, Deneb would blow itself to bits!

If you are looking at Cygnus for an area well away from city lights on a night when there is no Moon, look just northwest of Deneb for the North America Nebula (NGC 7000). This is an excellent emission nebula that covers as much area of the sky as 10 full Moons! At 3 full degrees, you’ll be looking for a vague, misty patch of silver-ness that about as broad as your thumb held at arm’s length.

While telescopes and binoculars are grand, remember this particular region is so large that you can easily over magnify it and often your unaided eye is all you need to catch this elusive interstellar cloud of ionized hydrogen (H II region). Now, get out your binoculars and let’s dance!

Messier 29 is very easy and bright and you can find it about a fingerwidth south and a little east of Gamma Cygni – the “8” shape on our map. This open cluster of stars has just a handful of bright members and will look like a small rendition of the “Big Dipper”. M29 is about 7,200 light years away from Earth, so the fact we can see it at all in binoculars is pretty impressive! Now, try Messier 39.

You’ll find this one about a fingerwidth west and southwest of Pi2, which looks like TT2 on our map. This galactic star cluster is far brighter and richer than the last. It will show as a triangle shape with bright stars in each corner and a couple of dozen fainter stars captured within the center. M39 is only about 800 light years away from our solar system, but it could be as much as 300 million years old!

Don’t put your binoculars away just yet. You’ve got to visit Omega 2 before you stop! Its name is Ruchbah and it’s a double star about 500 light years from Earth, consisting of a magnitude 5.44 star of spectral class M2 and a 6.6 magnitude star of spectral class A0. The stars are well separated at 256″ apart and can be seen in binoculars and totally glorious in a telescope. Because of the color contrast (red main star and blue companion), Ruchba is a beautiful object for amateur astronomers.

The northern Cygnus constellation. Credit: IAU

Now try Beta Cygni – Albireo. It is also known as one of the most attractive and colorful double stars in the sky. Beautiful Beta 1 is an orange giant K star and Beta 2 is a main-sequence B star of a soft, blue hue. If you can’t separate them in your binoculars, use a telescope! This seasonal favorite is one that’s not to be missed! Now, let’s try a couple objects for the telescope.

One of the true prizes of the Cygnus region for any telescope is the Holy Veil (NGC 6960, 6962, 6979, 6992, and 6995). You’ll find it just south of Epsilon Cygni and the easiest segment to find is 6960, which runs through the star 52 Cygni. This is an ancient supernova remnant covering approximately 3 degrees of the sky and an experience you won’t soon forget if you are viewing from a dark sky site.

The source supernova exploded some 5,000 to 8,000 years ago and it is simply amazing to think that anything remains to be seen. It was discovered on 1784 September 5 by William Herschel. He described the western end of the nebula as “Extended; passes thro’ 52 Cygni… near 2 degree in length.” and described the eastern end as “Branching nebulosity… The following part divides into several streams uniting again towards the south.”

Even though it is any where from from 1,400 to 2,600 light-years light years away, you’ll find long and wondrous tongues of material to capture your interest and delight your eye and you follow them to their ends!

More challenging is the Crescent Nebula (NGC 6888 or Caldwell 27) located at RA 20h 12m 7s Dec +38 21.3′. This is an emission nebula fueled by a Wolf-Rayet star located about 5000 light years away. It is formed by the fast stellar wind careening off illuminating the slower moving wind ejected by the star when it went into the red giant star stage. What’s left is a collision… a shell and two shock waves… one moving outward and one moving inward. A what a grand one it is!

The Fireworks Galaxy (NGC 6946) taken by the Subaru Telescope. Credit: NAOJ/Robert Gendler

For galaxy fans, you have got to point your telescope towards NGC 6946, the “Fireworks Galaxy” (RA 20h 34m 52.3s Dec +60 09 14). Who cares if this barred spiral galaxy 10 million light years away? This is one supernovae active baby! At one time, it was widely believed that NGC 6946 was a member of our Local Group; mainly because it could be easily resolved into stars.

There was a reddening observed in it, believed to be indicative of distance – but now know to be caused by interstellar dust. But it isn’t the shrouding dust cloud that makes NGC 6946 so interesting, it’s the fact that so many supernova and star-forming events have sparkled in its arms in the last few years that has science puzzled! So many, in fact, that they’ve been recorded every year or two for the last 60 years…

Now, for the really cool part – understanding barred structure. Thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope and a study of more than 2,000 spiral galaxies – the Cosmic Evolution Survey (COSMOS) – astronomers understand that barred spiral structure just didn’t occur very often some 7 billion years ago in the local universe. Bar formation in spiral galaxies evolved over time.

A team led by Kartik Sheth of the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena discovered that only 20 percent of the spiral galaxies in the distant past possessed bars, compared with nearly 70 percent of their modern counterparts. This makes NGC 6946 very rare, indeed… Since its barred structure was noted back in Herschel’s time and its age of 10 billion years puts it beyond what is considered a “modern” galaxy.

It that all there is? Not hardly. Try NGC 6883, an open cluster located about 3 degrees east/northeast of Eta Cygni. It’s a nice, tight cluster that involves a well-resolved double star and a bonus open cluster – Biurakan 2 – as well. Or how about NGC 6826 located about 1.3 degrees east/northeast of Theta. This one is totally cool… the “Blinking Planetary”!

This planetary nebula is fairly bright and so is the central star… but don’t stare at it, or it will disappear! Look at it averted and the central star will appear again. Neat trick, huh? Now try NGC 6819 about 8 degrees west of Gamma. Here you’ll find a very rich, bright open cluster of about 100 stars that’s sure to please. It’s also known as Best 42!

There’s many more objects in Cygnus than just what’s listed here, so grab yourself a good star chart and fly with the “Swan”!

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:

Star Should Have Gone Supernova, But it Imploded Into a Black Hole Instead

Collapsing stars are a rare thing to witness. And when astronomers are able to catch a star in the final phase of its evolution, it is a veritable feast for the senses. Ordinarily, this process consists of a star undergoing gravitational collapse after it has exhausted all of its fuel, and shedding its outer layers in a massive explosion (aka. a supernova). However, sometimes, stars can form black holes without the preceding massive explosion.

This process, what might be described as “going out not with a bang, but with a whimper”, is what a team of astronomers witnessed when observing N6946-BH1 – a star located in the Fireworks Galaxy (NGC 6946). Originally, astronomers thought that this star would exploded because of its significant mass. But instead, the star simply fizzled out, leaving behind a black hole.

The Fireworks Galaxy, a spiral galaxy located 22 million light-years from Earth, is so-named because supernova are known to be a frequent occurrence there. In fact, earlier this month, an amateur astronomer spotted what is now designated as SN 2017eaw. As such, three astronomers from Ohio Sate University (who are co-authors on the study) were expecting N6946-BH1 would go supernova when in 2009, it began to brighten.

Visible-light and near-infrared photos from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope showing the giant star N6946-BH1 before and after it vanished out of sight by imploding to form a black hole. Credit: NASA/ESA/C. Kochanek (OSU)

However, by 2015, it appeared to have winked out. As such, the team went looking for the remnants of it with the help of colleagues from Ohio State University and the University of Oklahoma. Using the combined power of the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) and NASA’s Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, they realized that the star had completely disappeared from sight.

The details of their research appeared in a study titled “The Search for Failed Supernovae with the Large Binocular Telescope: Confirmation of a Disappearing Star“, which recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Among the many galaxies they were watching for supernovas, they had their sights set on the Fireworks Galaxy to see what had become of N6946-BH1.

After it experienced a weak optical outburst in 2009, they had anticipated that this red supergiant would go supernova – which seemed logical given that it was 25 times as massive as our Sun. After winking out in 2015, they had expected to find that the star had merely dimmed, or that it had cast off a dusty shell of material that was obscuring its light from view.

Their efforts included an LBT survey for failed supernovae, which they combined with infrared spectra obtained by the Spitzer Space Telescope and optical data from Hubble. However, all the surveys turned up negative, which led them to only one possible conclusion: that N6946-BH1 must have failed to go supernova and instead went straight to forming a blackhole.

Simulated view of a black hole. Credit: Bronzwaer/Davelaar/Moscibrodzka/Falcke, Radboud University

As Scott Adams – a former Ohio State student who is now an astrophysicist at the Cahill Center for Astrophysics (and the lead author of the study) – explained in a NASA press release:

“N6946-BH1 is the only likely failed supernova that we found in the first seven years of our survey. During this period, six normal supernovae have occurred within the galaxies we’ve been monitoring, suggesting that 10 to 30 percent of massive stars die as failed supernovae. This is just the fraction that would explain the very problem that motivated us to start the survey, that is, that there are fewer observed supernovae than should be occurring if all massive stars die that way.”

A major implication of this study is the way it could shed new light on the formation of very massive black holes. For some time now, astronomers have believed that in order to form a black hole at the end of its life cycle, a star would have to be massive enough to cause a supernova. But as the team observed, it doesn’t make sense that a star would blow off its outer layers and still have enough mass left over to form a massive black hole.

As Christopher Kochanek – a professor of astronomy at The Ohio State University, the Ohio Eminent Scholar in Observational Cosmology and a co-author of the team’s study – explained:

“The typical view is that a star can form a black hole only after it goes supernova. If a star can fall short of a supernova and still make a black hole, that would help to explain why we don’t see supernovae from the most massive stars.”

This information is also important as far as the study of gravitational waves goes. In February of 2016, scientists at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) announced the first detection of this strange phenomena, which were apparently generated by a massive black hole. If in fact massive black holes form from failed supernova, it would help astronomers to track down the sources more easily.

Be sure to check out this video of the observations made of this failed SN and black hole:

Further Reading: NASA, MNRAS

 

It’s Been Three Years Since We’ve Had a Supernova This Close

A supernova is one of the most impressive astronomical events anyone can possibly witness. Characterized by a massive explosion that takes place during the final stages of a massive star’s life (after billions of years of evolution), this sort of event is understandably quite rare. In fact, within the Milky Way Galaxy, a supernova event is likely to happen just once a century.

But within the Fireworks Galaxy (aka. the spiral galaxy NGC 6946), which is located 22 million light years from Earth and has half as many stars as our galaxy, supernovae are about ten times more frequent. On May 13th, while examining this galaxy from his home in Utah, amateur astronomer Patrick Wiggins spotted what was later confirmed to be a Type II supernova.

To break this magnificent astronomical event down, most supernova can be placed into two categories. Type I Supernovae occur when a smaller star has consumed all of its nuclear fuel, and then undergoes core collapse with the help of additional matter accreted from a nearby orbiting star. Type II Supernovae are the result of massive stars undergoing core collapse all on their own.

The confirmed supernova, “SN 2017aew”, which can be seen on the top right side of the “Fireworks Galaxy”. Click to see animation. Credit: Patrick Wiggins

In both cases, the result is a sudden and extreme increase in brightness, where the star blows off its outer layers and may become temporarily brighter than all the other stars in its galaxy. It then spends the next few months slowly fading until it becomes a white dwarf. It was while surveying the Fireworks galaxy with his own telescope that Wiggins noticed such a sudden burst in brightness, which had not been there just two nights before.

Wiggins finding was confirmed a day later (May 14th) by two experts in supernovae – Subo Dong and Krzysztof Z. Stanek, two professors from Peking University and Ohio State University, respectively. After conducting observations of their own, they determined that what Wiggins had witnessed was a Type II supernova, which has since been designated as SN 2017eaw.

In addition to being an amateur astronomer, Patrick Wiggins is also the public outreach educator for the University of Utah’s Department of Physics & Astronomy and the NASA Solar System Ambassador to Utah. This supernova, which was the third Wiggins has observed in his lifetime, is also the closest to Earth in three years, being about 22 million light years from Earth.

The last time a supernova was observed exploding this close to Earth was on January 22nd, 2014. At the time, students at the University of London Observatory spotted an exploding star (SN 2014J) in the nearby Cigar Galaxy (aka. M82), which is located around 12 million light years away. This was the closest supernova to be observed in recent decades.

Animation showing a comparison between M82 on Jan. 22nd, 2014 Nov. 22nd, 2013. Credit: E. Guido/N. Howes/M. Nicolini

As such, the observation of a supernova at a comparatively close distance to Earth just three years later is a pretty impressive feat. And it is an additional feather in the cap of an amateur astronomer whose resume is already quite impressive! Besides the three supernova he was observed, Wiggins has received many accolades over the years for his contributions to astronomy.

These include the Distinguished Public Service Medal, which is the highest civilian honor NASA can bestow. In addition, he discovered an asteroid in 2008 which the IAU – at Wiggin’s request – officially named “Univofutah”, in honor of the University of Utah. He is also a member of the Phun with Physics team, which provides free scientific lessons at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

Further Reading: University of Utah UNews

“Vampire” Galaxy Sucks Star-Forming Gas from its Neighbors

What happens when a galaxy doesn’t have enough hydrogen to support its stellar production process? Why, it sucks it from its hapless neighbors like some sort of cosmic vampire, that’s what. And evidence of this predatory process is what’s recently been observed with the National Science Foundation’s Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) in West Virginia, in the form of faint “cold flows” bridging intergalactic space between the galaxy NGC 6946 and its smaller companions.

“We knew that the fuel for star formation had to come from somewhere,” said astronomer D.J. Pisano from West Virginia University, author of the study. “So far, however, we’ve detected only about 10 percent of what would be necessary to explain what we observe in many galaxies. A leading theory is that rivers of hydrogen – known as cold flows – may be ferrying hydrogen through intergalactic space, clandestinely fueling star formation. But this tenuous hydrogen has been simply too diffuse to detect, until now.”

NGC 6946 also goes by the festive moniker of “the Fireworks Galaxy,” due to the large amount of supernovae that have been observed within its arms — eight within the past century alone. Located 22 million light-years away between the constellations Cepheus and Cygnus, NGC 6946’s high rate of star formation has made astronomers curious as to how it (and other starburst galaxies like it) gets its stellar fuel.

One long-standing hypothesis is that large galaxies like NGC 6946 receive a constant supply of hydrogen gas by drawing it off their less-massive companions.

Chandra and Gemini image of NGC 6946 (X-ray: NASA/CXC/MSSL/R.Soria et al, Optical: AURA/Gemini OBs)
Chandra and Gemini image of NGC 6946 (X-ray: NASA/CXC/MSSL/R.Soria et al, Optical: AURA/Gemini OBs)

Now, thanks to the GBT’s unique capabilities — such as its immense single dish, unblocked aperture, and location in the National Radio Quiet Zone — direct observations have been made of the extremely faint radio emissions coming from neutral hydrogen flows connecting NGC 6946 with its smaller satellite galaxies.

According to a press release from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory:

Earlier studies of the galactic neighborhood around NGC 6946 with the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope (WSRT) in the Netherlands have revealed an extended halo of hydrogen (a feature commonly seen in spiral galaxies, which may be formed by hydrogen ejected from the disk of the galaxy by intense star formation and supernova explosions). A cold flow, however, would be hydrogen from a completely different source: gas from intergalactic space that has never been heated to extreme temperatures by a galaxy’s star birth or supernova processes.

Another possible source of the cold flow is a previous collision with another galaxy, possibly even one of its own satellites, which would have left strands of atomic hydrogen in its wake. But if that were the case stars would likely have since formed within the filaments themselves, which has not yet been observed.

Pisano’s findings have been published in the Astronomical Journal.

Source: NRAO press release. Learn more about the Green Bank Telescope here.

Image credit: D.J. Pisano (WVU); B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); Palomar Observatory – Space Telescope Science Institute 2nd Digital Sky Survey (Caltech); Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope