How Much Stuff is in a Light Year?

The Milky Way is an extremely big place. Measured from end to end, our galaxy in an estimated 100,000 to 180,000 light years (31,000 – 55,000 parsecs) in diameter. And it is extremely well-populated, with an estimated 100 to 400 million stars contained within. And according to recent estimates, it is believed that there are as many as 100 billion planets in the Milky Way. And our galaxy is merely one of trillions within the Universe.

So if we were to break it down, just how much matter would we find out there? Estimating how much there is overall would involve some serious math and incredible figures. But what about a single light year? As the most commonly-used unit for measuring the distances between stars and galaxies, determining how much stuff can be found within a single light year (on average) is a good way to get an idea of how stuff is out there.

Light Year:

Even though the name is a little confusing, you probably already know that a light year is the distance that light travels in the space of a year. Given that the speed of light has been measured to 299,792, 458 m/s (1080 million km/h; 671 million mph), the distance light travels in a single year is quite immense. All told, a single light year works out to 9,460,730,472,580.8 kilometers (5,878,625,373,183.6 mi).

Diagram showing the distance light travels between the Sun and the Earth. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Brews ohare

So to determine how much stuff is in a light year, we need to take that distance and turn it into a cube, with each side measuring one light year in length. Imagine that giant volume of space (a little challenging for some of us to get our heads around) and imagine just how much “stuff” would be in there. And not just “stuff”, in the sense of dust, gas, stars or planets, either. How much nothing is in there, as in, the empty vacuum of space?

There is an answer, but it all depends on where you put your giant cube. Measure it at the core of the galaxy, and there are stars buzzing around all over the place. Perhaps in the heart of a globular cluster? In a star forming nebula? Or maybe out in the suburbs of the Milky Way? There’s also great voids that exist between galaxies, where there’s almost nothing.

Density of the Milky Way:

There’s no getting around the math in this one. First, let’s figure out an average density for the Milky Way and then go from there. Its about 100,000 to 180,000 light-years across and 1000 light-years thick. According to my buddy and famed astronomer Phil Plait (of Bad Astronomy), the total volume of the Milky Way is about 8 trillion cubic light-years.

And the total mass of the Milky Way is 6 x 1042 kilograms (that’s 6,000 trillion trillion trillion metric tons or 6,610 trillion trillion trillion US tons). Divide those together and you get 8 x 1029 kilograms (800 trillion trillion metric tons or 881.85 trillion trillion US tons) per light year. That’s an 8 followed by 29 zeros. This sounds like a lot, but its actually the equivalent of 0.4 Solar Masses – 40% of the mass of our Sun.

This image from the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, shows the bright star cluster NGC 6520 and its neighbour, the strangely shaped dark cloud Barnard 86. This cosmic pair is set against millions of glowing stars from the brightest part of the Milky Way — a region so dense with stars that barely any dark sky is seen across the picture.
Millions of glowing stars from the brightest part of the Milky Way — a region so dense with stars that barely any dark sky is seen across the picture. Credit: ESO

In other words, on average, across the Milky Way, there’s about 40% the mass of the Sun in every cubic light year. But in an average cubic meter, there’s only about 950 attograms, which is almost one femtogram (a quadrillionth of a gram of matter), which is pretty close to nothing. Compare this to air, which has more than a kilogram of mass per cubic meter.

To be fair, in the densest regions of the Milky Way – like inside globular clusters – you can get densities of stars with 100, or even 1000 times greater than our region of the galaxy. Stars can get as close together as the radius of the Solar System. But out in the vast interstellar gulfs between stars, the density drops significantly. There are only a few hundred individual atoms per cubic meter in interstellar space.

And in the intergalactic voids; the gulfs between galaxies, there are just a handful of atoms per meter. Like it or not, much of the Universe is pretty close to being empty space, with just trace amounts of dust or gas particles to be found between all the stars, galaxies, clusters and super clusters.

So how much stuff is there in a light year? It all depends on where you look, but if you spread all the matter around by shaking the Universe up like a snow globe, the answer is very close to nothing.

We have written many interesting articles about the Milky Way Galaxy here at Universe Today. Here’s 10 Interesting Facts About the Milky Way, How Big is the Milky Way?, How Many Stars are There in the Milky Way?, Where is the Earth Located in the Milky Way?, How Far is a Light Year?, and How Far Does Light Travel in a Year?

For more information, check out How many teaspoons are there in a cubic light year? at HowStuffWorks

Astronomy Cast also has a good episode on the subject. Here’s Episode 99: The Milky Way

Sources:

Messier 30 – The NGC 7099 Globular Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the globular cluster known as Messier 30. 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 Messier 30, a globular cluster located in the southern constellation of Capricornus. Owing to its retrograde orbit through the inner galactic halo, it is believed that this cluster was acquired from a satellite galaxy in the past. Though it is invisible to the naked eye, this cluster can be viewed using little more than binoculars, and is most visible during the summer months.

Description:

Messier measures about 93 light years across and lies at a distance of about 26,000 light years from Earth, and approaching us at a speed of about 182 kilometers per second. While it looks harmless enough, its tidal influence covers an enormous 139 light years – far greater than its apparent size.

Half of its mass is so concentrated that literally thousands of stars could be compressed in an area that spans no further than the distance between our solar system and Sirius! However, inside this density only 12 variable stars have been found and very little evidence of any stellar collisions, although a dwarf nova has been recorded!

So what’s so special about this little globular? Try a collapsed core – and one that’s even been resolved by Earth-bound telescopes. According to Bruce Jones Sams III, an astrophysicists at Harvard University:

“The globular cluster NGC 7099 is a prototypical collapsed core cluster. Through a series of instrumental, observational, and theoretical observations, I have resolved its core structure using a ground based telescope. The core has a radius of 2.15 arcsec when imaged with a V band spatial resolution of 0.35 arcsec. Initial attempts at speckle imaging produced images of inadequate signal to noise and resolution. To explain these results, a new, fully general signal-to-noise model has been developed. It properly accounts for all sources of noise in a speckle observation, including aliasing of high spatial frequencies by inadequate sampling of the image plane. The model, called Full Speckle Noise (FSN), can be used to predict the outcome of any speckle imaging experiment. A new high resolution imaging technique called ACT (Atmospheric Correlation with a Template) was developed to create sharper astronomical images. ACT compensates for image motion due to atmospheric turbulence.”

Photography is an important tool for astronomers to work with – both land and space-based. By combining results, we can learn far more than just from the results of one telescope observation alone. As Justin H. Howell wrote in a 1999 study:

“It has long been known that the post-core-collapse globular cluster M30 (NGC 7099) has a bluer-inward color gradient, and recent work suggests that the central deficiency of bright red giant stars does not fully account for this gradient. This study uses Hubble Space Telescope Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 images in the F439W and F555W bands, along with ground-based CCD images with a wider field of view for normalization of the noncluster background contribution. The quoted uncertainty accounts for Poisson fluctuations in the small number of bright evolved stars that dominate the cluster light. We explore various algorithms for artificially redistributing the light of bright red giants and horizontal-branch stars uniformly across the cluster. The traditional method of redistribution in proportion to the cluster brightness profile is shown to be inaccurate. There is no significant residual color gradient in M30 after proper uniform redistribution of all bright evolved stars; thus, the color gradient in M30’s central region appears to be caused entirely by post-main-sequence stars.”

Image of Messier 30 (M 30, NGC 7099) was taken by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS). Credit: NASA/ESA

So what happens when you dig even deeper with a different type of photography? Just ask the folks from Chandra – like Phyllis M. Lugger, who wrote in her study, “Chandra X-ray Sources in the Collapsed-Core Globular Cluster M30 (NGC 7099)“:

“We report the detection of six discrete, low-luminosity X-ray sources, located within 12” of the center of the collapsed-core globular cluster M30 (NGC 7099), and a total of 13 sources within the half-mass radius, from a 50 ks Chandra ACIS-S exposure. Three sources lie within the very small upper limit of 1.9” on the core radius. The brightest of the three core sources has a blackbody-like soft X-ray spectrum, which is consistent with it being a quiescent low-mass X-ray binary (qLMXB). We have identified optical counterparts to four of the six central sources and a number of the outlying sources, using deep Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based imaging. While the two proposed counterparts that lie within the core may represent chance superpositions, the two identified central sources that lie outside of the core have X-ray and optical properties consistent with being cataclysmic variables (CVs). Two additional sources outside of the core have possible active binary counterparts.”

History of Observation:

When Charles Messier first encountered this globular cluster in 1764, he was unable to resolve individual stars, and mistakenly believed it to be a nebula. As he wrote in his notes at the time:

“In the night of August 3 to 4, 1764, I have discovered a nebula below the great tail of Capricornus, and very near the star of sixth magnitude, the 41st of that constellation, according to Flamsteed: one sees that nebula with difficulty in an ordinary [non-achromatic] refractor of 3 feet; it is round, and I have not seen any star: having examined it with a good Gregorian telescope which magnifies 104 times, it could have a diameter of 2 minutes of arc. I have compared the center with the star Zeta Capricorni, and I have determined its position in right ascension as 321d 46′ 18″, and its declination as 24d 19′ 4″ south. This nebula is marked in the chart of the famous Comet of Halley which I observed at its return in 1759.”

Image of the core region of Messier 30 by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

However, we cannot fault Messier, for his job was to hunt comets and we thank him for logging this object for further study. Perhaps the first clue to M30’s underlying potential came from Sir William Herschel, who often studied Messier’s objects, but did not report his findings formally. In his personal notes he wrote:

“A brilliant cluster, the stars of which are gradually more compressed in the middle. It is insulated, that is, none of the stars in the neighborhood are likely to be connected with it. Its diameter is from 2’40” to 3’30”. The figure is irregularly round. The stars about the centre are so much compressed as to appear to run together. Towards the north, are two rows of bright stars 4 or 5 in a line. In this accumulation of stars, we plainly see the exertion of a central clustering power, which may reside in a central mass, or, what is more probable, in the compound energy of the stars about the centre. The lines of bright stars, although by a drawing made at the time of observation, one of them seems to pass through the cluster, are probably not connected with it.”

So, as telescopes progressed and resolution improved, so did our way of thinking about what we were seeing… By Admiral Smyth’s time, things had improved even more and so had the art of understanding more:

“A fine pale white cluster, under the creature’s caudal fin, and about 20 deg west-north-west of Fomalhaut, where it precedes 41 Capricorni, a star of 5th magnitude, within a degree. This object is bright, and from the straggling streams of stars on its northern verge, has an elliptical aspect, with a central blaze; and there are but few other stars, or outliers, in the field.

“When Messier discovered this, in 1764, he remarked that it was easily seen with a 3 1/2-foot telescope, that it was a nebula, unaccompanied by any star, and that its form was circular. But in 1783 it was attacked by WH [William Herschel] with both his 20-foot Newtonians, and forthwith resolved into a brilliant cluster, with two rows pf stars, four or five in a line, which probably belong to it; and therefore he deemed it insulated. Independently of this opinion, it is situated in a blankish space, one of those chasmata which Lalande termed d’espaces vuides, wherein he could not perceive a star of the 9th magnitude in the achromatic telescope of sixty-seven millimetres aperture. By a modification of his very ingenious gauging process, Sir William considered the profundity of this cluster to be of the 344th order.

“Here are materials for thinking! What an immensity of space is indicated! Can such an arrangement be intended, as a bungling spouter of the hour insists, for a mere appendage to the speck of a world on which we dwell, to soften the darkness of its petty midnight? This is impeaching the intelligence of Infinite Wisdom and Power, in adapting such grand means to so disproportionate an end. No imagination can fill up the picture of which the visual organs afford the dim outline; and he who confidently probes the Eternal Design cannot be many removes from lunacy. It was such a consideration that made the inspired writer claim, “How unsearchable are His operations, and His ways past finding out!”

Throughout all historic observing notes, you’ll find notations like “remarkable” and even Dreyer’s famous exclamation points. Even though M30 may not be the easiest to find, nor the brightest of the Messier objects, it is still quite worthy of your time and attention!

The location of Messier 30, in the direction of the Scorpius constellation. Credit: IAU/Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

Locating Messier 30:

Finding M30 is not an easy task, unless you’re using a GoTo telescope. In any other case, it’s a starhop process, which must begin with identifying the the big grin-shape of the constellation of Capricornus. Once you’ve separated out this constellation, you’ll begin to notice that many of its primary asterism stars are paired – which is a good thing! The northeastern most pair are Gamma and Delta, which is where binocular-users should start.

As you move slowly south and slightly west, you’ll encounter your next wide pair – Chi and Epsilon. The next southwestern set is 36 Cap and Zeta. Now, from here you have two options! You can find Messier 30 a little more than a finger width east(ish) of Zeta (about half a binocular field)… or, you can return to Epsilon and look about one binocular field south (about 3 degrees) for star 41 which will appear just east of Messier 30 in the same field of view.

For the finderscope, star 41 is a critical giveaway to the globular cluster’s position! It won’t be visible to the unaided eye, but even a little magnification will reveal its presence. Using binoculars or a very small telescope, Messier 30 will appear as only a small, faded gray ball of light with a small star beside it. However, with telescope apertures as small as 4″ you’ll begin some resolution on this overlooked globular cluster and larger apertures will resolve it nicely.

And here are the quick facts on Messier 30 to help you get started:

Object Name: Messier 30
Alternative Designations: M30, NGC 7099
Object Type: Class V Globular Cluster
Constellation: Capricornus
Right Ascension: 21 : 40.4 (h:m)
Declination: -23 : 11 (deg:m
Distance: 26.1 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 7.2 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 12.0 (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 28 – The NGC 6626 Globular Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the Globular Cluster known as Messier 28. 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 them so that others would not make the same mistake he did. In time, this list would come to include 100 of the most fabulous objects in the night sky.

One of these objects was the globular cluster now known as Messier 28. Located in the direction of the Sagittarius constellation, some 17,900 light-years from Earth, this “nebulous” cluster is easily detectable in the night sky. It is also the third largest known clustering of millisecond pulsars in the known Universe.

Description:

Compressed into a sphere measuring about 60 light years in diameter, globular star cluster Messier 28 happily orbits our galactic center about 19,000 light years away from Earth. In all of its thousands upon thousands of stars, M28 contains 18 known RR Lyrae variables and a W Virginis variable star. This very different variable is a Type II, or population II Cepheid that has a precise change rate which occurs every 17 days.

 Image based on observations made with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, and obtained from the Hubble Legacy Archive, which is a collaboration between the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI/NASA), the Space Telescope European Coordinating Facility (ST-ECF/ESA) and the Canadian Astronomy Data Centre (CADC/NRC/CSA).
Image of Messier 28, based on observations made with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, and obtained from the Hubble Legacy Archive. Credit: STScI/NASA/ST-EFC/ESA/CADC/NRC/CSA

There has also been a second long period variable discovered, which could very well be an RV Tauri type, too. However, one of M28’s biggest claims to fame happened in 1986, when it became the first globular cluster known to contain a millisecond pulsar. This was discovered by the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory. The work on the pulsar was later picked up by Chandra researchers.

As Martin C. Weisskopf (et al) of the Space Sciences Department put it in a 2002 study of the object:

“We report here the results of the first Chandra X-Ray Observatory observations of the globular cluster M28 (NGC 6626). We detect 46 X-ray sources of which 12 lie within one core radius of the center. We measure the radial distribution of the X-ray sources and fit it to a King profile finding a core radius. We measure for the first time the unconfused phase-averaged X-ray spectrum of the 3.05-ms pulsar B1821–24 and find it is best described by a power law with photon index. We find marginal evidence of an emission line centered at 3.3 keV in the pulsar spectrum, which could be interpreted as cyclotron emission from a corona above the pulsar’s polar cap if the magnetic field is strongly different from a centered dipole. We present a spectral analyses of the brightest unidentified source and suggest that it is a transiently accreting neutron star in a low-mass X-ray binary, in quiescence. In addition to the resolved sources, we detect fainter, unresolved X-ray emission from the central core.”

And the search has far from ended as even more X-ray counterparts have been discovered inside this seemingly quiet globular cluster! As W. Becker and C.Y. Hui of the Max Planck Institute wrote in their 2007 study:

“A recent radio survey of globular clusters has increased the number of millisecond pulsars drastically. M28 is now the globular cluster with the third largest population of known pulsars, after Terzan 5 and 47 Tuc. This prompted us to revisit the archival Chandra data on M28 to evaluate whether the newly discovered millisecond pulsars find a counterpart among the various X-ray sources detected in M28 previously. The radio position of PSR J1824-2452H is found to be in agreement with the position of CXC 182431-245217 while some faint unresolved X-ray emission near to the center of M28 is found to be coincident with the millisecond pulsars PSR J1824-2452G, J1824-2452J, J1824-2452I and J1824-2452E.”

Messier 28. Credit: NASA/ESA/HST
The globular cluster Messier 28, image by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/ESA/HST

So is it possible that these can be seen? According to the 2001 study – “A search for the optical counterpart to PSR B1821-24 in M 28” – by Hubble researcher A Golden (et al.):

“We have analyzed archival HST/WFPC2 images in both the F555W & F814W bands of the core field of the globular cluster M 28 in an attempt to identify the optical counterpart of the magnetospherically active millisecond pulsar PSR B1821-24. Examination of the radio derived error circle yielded several potential candidates, down to a magnitude of V $\sim$ 24.5 (V0 $\sim$ 23.0). Each were further investigated, both in the context of the CMD of M 28, and also with regard to phenomenological models of pulsar magnetospheric emission. The latter was based on both luminosity-spindown correlations and known spectral flux density behaviour in this regime from the small population of optical pulsars observed to date. None of the potential candidates exhibited emission expected from a magnetospherically active pulsar. The fact that the magnetic field & spin coupling for PSR B1821-24 is of a similar magnitude to that of the Crab pulsar in the vicinity of the light cylinder has suggested that the millisecond pulsar may well be an efficient nonthermal emitter. ASCA’s detection of a strong synchrotron-dominated X-ray pulse fraction encourages such a viewpoint. We argue that only future dedicated 2-d high speed photometry observations of the radio error-circle can finally resolve this matter.”

History of Observation:

This globular cluster was an original discovery in July 1764 of Charles Messier who wrote in his notes:

“In the night of the 26th to the 27th of the same month, I have discovered a nebula in the upper part of the bow of Sagittarius, at about 1 degree from the star Lambda of that constellation, and little distant from the beautiful nebula which is between the head and the bow: that new one may be the third of the older one, and doesn’t contain any star, as far as I have been able to judge when examining it with a good Gregorian telescope which magnifies 104 times: it is round, its diameter is about 2 minutes of arc; one sees it with difficulty with an ordinary refractor of 3 feet and a half of length. I have compared the middle with the star Lambda Sagittarii, and I have concluded its right ascension of 272d 29′ 30″, and its declination of 37d 11′ 57″ south.”

As always, Sir William Herschel would often revisit with Messier’s objects for his own private observations and in his notes he states:

“It may be called insulated though situated in a part of the heavens that is very rich in stars. It may have a nucleus, for it is much compressed towards the centre, and the situation is too low for seeing it well. The stars of the cluster are pretty numerous.” It would be his son, John Herschel who would give M28 its New General Catalog Number and describe it as “Not very bright; but very rich, excessively compressed globular cluster; stars of 14th to 15th magnitude; much brighter toward the middle; a fine object.”

The location of Messier 28, in the direction of the Sagittarius Constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)
The location of Messier 28, in the direction of the Sagittarius Constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

Regardless of whether or not you use binoculars or a telescope on M28, part of the joy of this object is understand how very rich the stellar field is in which it appears. As John Herschel once said of M28 in his many observations, “Occurs in the milky way, of which the stars here are barely visible and immensely numerous.”

Locating Messier 28:

Finding M28 is another easy object once you’ve familiarized yourself with the “teapot” asterism of the constellation of Sagittarius. In binoculars, simply center Lambda in the field of view and you will see Messier 28 as a small, faded grey circular area in the 1:00 position away from the marker star.

In the finderscope of telescope, you can start by centering on Lambda and go to the eyepiece and simply shift the telescope to the northwest slowly and Messier 28 will pop into view. While this globular cluster is easily bright enough to be seen in the smallest of optics, it will require at least a 4″ telescope before it begins any resolution of individual stars and telescopes in the 10″ and larger range will fully appreciate all it has to offer.

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

Object Name: Messier 28
Alternative Designations: M28, NGC 6626
Object Type: Class IV Globular Cluster
Constellation: Sagittarius
Right Ascension: 18 : 24.5 (h:m)
Declination: -24 : 52 (deg:m)
Distance: 18.3 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 6.8 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 11.2 (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:

Terzan 5 May Unlock Secret to Milky Way’s Past

Peering through the thick dust clouds of the galactic bulge an international team of astronomers has revealed the unusual mix of stars in the stellar cluster known as Terzan 5. The new results indicate that Terzan 5 is in fact one of the bulge's primordial building blocks, most likely the relic of the very early days of the Milky Way. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble/F. Ferraro
Peering through the thick dust clouds of the galactic bulge (center of the galaxy) an international team of astronomers has revealed the unusual mix of stars in the stellar cluster known as Terzan 5. The new results indicate that Terzan 5 is in fact one of the bulge’s primordial building blocks, most likely the relic of the very early days of the Milky Way. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble/F. Ferraro

Not many people have heard of the globular star cluster Terzan 5. It’s a big ball of stars resembling spilled sugar like so many other globular clusters. A very few globulars are bright enough to see with the naked eye; Terzan 5 is faint because it lies far away in the direction of the center of Milky Way galaxy inside its central bulge. Here, the stars that formed at the galaxy’s birth are packed together in great numbers. They are the “old ones” of the Milky Way.

Today, a team of astronomers revealed that Terzan 5 is unlike any globular cluster known. Most Milky Way globulars contain stars of just one age, about 11-12 billion years. They formed around the same time as the Milky Way itself, used up all their available gas early to build stars and then spent the remaining billions of years aging. Most orbit the galaxy’s center in a vast halo like moths whirring around a bright light. Oddball Terzan 5 has two populations aged 12 billion and 4.5 billion years old and it’s located inside the galactic bulge.

Globular clusters are distributed in a spherical halo about the core or bulge in the Milky Way galaxy. The Sun and planets are located well away from the center. From our perspective, most globular clusters appear concentrated in the direction of the galaxy's center. Credit: Science Frontiers Online
Globular clusters are distributed in a spherical halo about the star-rich core or bulge at the center of the disk of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: Science Frontiers Online

The team used the cameras on the Hubble Space Telescope as well as a host of ground-based telescopes to find compelling evidence for the two distinct kinds of stars. Not only do they show a large gap in age, but the differ in the elements they contain. Terzan 5’s dual populations point to a star formation process that wasn’t continuous but dominated by two distinct bursts of star formation.

“This requires the Terzan 5 ancestor to have large amounts of gas for a second generation of stars and to be quite massive. At least 100 million times the mass of the Sun,” explains Davide Massari, co-author of the study.

Its unusual properties make Terzan 5 the ideal candidate for the title of “living fossil” from the early days of the Milky Way. Current theories on galaxy formation assume that vast clumps of gas and stars interacted to form the primordial bulge of the Milky Way, merging and dissolving in the process.

While the properties of Terzan 5 are uncommon for a globular cluster, they’re very similar to the stars found in the galactic bulge. Remnants of those gaseous clumps appear to have stuck around intact since the days of our galaxy’s birth, one of them evolving into the present day Terzan 5. That makes it a relic from the Milky Way’s infant days and one of the earliest galactic building blocks. Later, the cluster, which held onto some of its remaining gas, experienced a second burst of star formation.

This current model of the Milky Way galaxy shows the yellow-hued galactic bulge formed by ancient stars well along in their evolution, in contrast to the bluer, younger stars in the spiral arms. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC/Caltech)

“Some characteristics of Terzan 5 resemble those detected in the giant clumps we see in star-forming galaxies at high-redshift (galaxies just beginning to form in the remote universe in the far distant past), suggesting that similar assembling processes occurred in the local and in the distant universe at the epoch of galaxy formation,” said Dr. Francesco Ferraro from the University of Bologna, Italy, who headed up the team.

The Milky Way on a late September night offers an opportunity to contemplate the grand form of the galaxy. Credit: Bob King
The Milky Way on a late September night offers an opportunity to contemplate the grand form of the galaxy. Credit: Bob King

Terzan 5’s chandelier-like presence is helping astronomers understand how our galaxy was assembled. Reconstructing the past is one of the key occupations of astronomy. The present is continually departing with every passing moment. Soon enough, every piece of information slips into the past tense.  In the near-past, which records humanity’s comings and goings, details are often forgotten or lost. The deep past is even worse. With no one around and only scattered clues, astronomers continually look for fragmental remains that when woven into the fabric of a theory, reveal patterns and processes before we came to be.

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:

Messier 19 (M19) – The NGC 6273 Globular Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the Messier 19 globular star cluster. Enjoy!

In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier began noticing a series of “nebulous objects” in the night sky. Hoping to ensure that other astronomers did not make the same mistake, he began compiling a list of these objects,. Known to posterity as the Messier Catalog, this list has come to be one of the most important milestones in the research of Deep Sky objects.

One of these objects is Messier 19, a globular star cluster located in the constellation Ophiuchus. Of all the known globular clusters, M19 appears to be one of the most oblate (i.e. flattest) in the night sky. Discovered by William Herschel, this cluster is relatively difficult to spot with the naked eye, and appears as a fuzzy point of light with the help of magnification.

Description:

Speeding away from us at a rate of 146 kilometers per second, this gravitationally bound ball of stars measuring 140 light years in diameter, is one of the Messier globular clusters that has the distinction of being closest to the center of the Milky Way. At a little more than 5000 light-years from the intense gravitation of our own galactic core, it has played havoc on M19’s round shape.

In essence, Milky Way’s gravity has caused M19 to become one of the most oblate of all globular clusters, with twice as many stars along the major axis as along the minor. And, although it is 28,000 light-years from Earth, it’s actually on the opposite side of the galactic core. For all of its rich, dense mass, four RR Lyrae variable stars have been found in M19.

The constellation Ophiuchis. Credit: iau.org
The constellation Ophiuchis. Credit: iau.org

Is Messier 19 unique? It has some stellar branch properties that are difficult to pinpoint. And even its age (though estimated at around 11.9 billion years old) is indeterminate. Says F. Meissner and A. Weiss in their 2006 study, “Global fitting of globular cluster age indicators“:

“The determination of globular cluster (GC) ages rests on the fact that colour-magnitude diagrams (CMDs) of single-age single composition stellar populations exhibit specific time-dependent features. Most importantly, this is the location of the turn-off (TO), which – together with the cluster’s distance – serves as the most straightforward and widely used age indicator. However, there are other parts of the CMD that change their colour or brightness with age, too. Since the sensitivity to time is different for the various parts of the cluster CMD, it is possible to use either the various indicators independently, or the differences in colour and brightness between pairs of them; these latter methods have the advantage of being independent of distance.”

What’s occurring is a horizontal branch gap – an not-quite explainable difference in the way the stars inside M19 are aging. However, science is looking for the answer. As G. Busso et al. explained in their 2008 paper titled “The Peculiar Horizontal Branch Morphology of the Galactic Globular Clusters NGC 6388 and NGC 6441“:

“I show that a possible solution of the puzzle is to assume that a small fraction of the stellar population in the two clusters is strongly helium enriched. The presence of two distinct stellar populations characterized by two different initial He contents can help in explaining the brightness difference between the red portion of the HB and the blue component.”

The Messier 19 globular cluster, as viewed by the Two Micron All-Sky Survey (2MASS). Credit: 2MASS/ipac.caltech.edu
The Messier 19 globular cluster, as viewed by the Two Micron All-Sky Survey (2MASS). Credit: 2MASS/ipac.caltech.edu

Is helium the answer? Quite probably so. M. Salaris Astrophysics Research Institute and an international team of researchers explained in their 2004 study “The initial helium abundance of the Galactic globular cluster system“:

“Based on a recently updated set of stellar evolution models, we performed an accurate statistical analysis in order to assess whether GGCs show a statistically significant spread in their initial He abundances, and whether there is a correlation with the cluster metallicity. As in previous works on the subject, we do not find any significant dependence of the He abundance on the cluster metallicity; this provides an important constraint for models of Galaxy formation and evolution. Apart from GGCs with the bluest Horizontal Branch morphology, the observed spread in the individual helium abundances is statistically compatible with the individual errors. This means that either there is no intrinsic abundance spread among the GGCs, or that this is masked by the errors. In the latter case we have estimated a firm upper limit of 0.019 to the possible intrinsic spread. In case of the GGCs with the bluest Horizontal Branch morphology we detect a significant spread towards higher abundances inconsistent with the individual errors; this can be fully explained by additional effects not accounted for in our theoretical calibrations, which do not affect the abundances estimated for the clusters with redder Horizontal Branch morphology.”

History of Observation:

M19 was one of Charles Messier’s original discoveries, which he first observed on June 5th, 1764. In his notes, he wrote:

“I have discovered a nebula, situated on the parallel of Antares, between Scorpius and the right foot of Ophiuchus: that nebula is round & doesn’t contain any star; I have examined it with a Gregorian telescope which magnified 104 times, it is about 3 minutes of arc in diameter: one sees it very well with an ordinary refractor of 3 feet and a half. I have observed its passage of the Medirian, and compared it with that of the star Antares; I have determined the right ascension of that nebula of 252d 1′ 45″, and its declination of 25d 54′ 46″ south. The known star closest to that nebula is the 28th of the constellation Ophiuchus, after the catalog of Flamsteed, of sixth magnitude.”

Messier 19 and Antares. Credit: Wikisky
The Messier 19 globular cluster, relative to M4, M80 and Antares. Credit: Wikisky

While Charles didn’t resolve it, we must give him due credit for discovery, for its size wouldn’t make it a particularly easy object given his optics. Later, in 1784, William Herschel would become the first to open up its true identity:

“When the 19th of the Connoiss. is viewed with a magnifying power of 120, the stars are visible; the cluster is insulated; some of the small stars scattered in the neighborhood are near it; but they are larger than those belonging to the cluster. With 240 it is better resolved, and is much condensed in the centre. With 300 no nucleus or central body can be seen. The diameter with the 10 feet is 3’16”, and the stars in the centre are too accumulated to be separately seen. It will not be necessary to add that the two last mentioned globular clusters, viewed with more powerful instruments, are of equal beauty with the rest; and from what has been said it is obvious that here the exertion of a clustering power has brought the accumulation and artificial construction of these wonderful celestial objects to the highest degree of mysterious perfection.”

While you may – or may not – resolve Messier 19’s individual stars, even small telescopes can pick up on some of its ellipticity and larger telescopes will make out a definite blue tinge to its coloration. Before you yawn at viewing another globular cluster, remember that you are looking at the other side of our galactic center and think on the words about M19 from Admiral Symth.

“The whole vicinity,” he wrote, “afford a grand conception of the grandeur and richness even of the exterior creation; and indicate the beautious gradation and variety of the heaven of heavens. Truly has it been said, “Stars teach us as well as shine.” This is near the large opening or hole, about 4deg broad, in the Scorpion’s body, which WH [William Herschel] found almost destitute of stars.”

en:Messier 19 globular cluster by en:Hubble Space Telescope; 2.5? view en:NASA, en:STScI, en:WikiSky - en:WikiSky's
The Messier 19 globular cluster, as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit:NASA/STSc /HST/WikiSky

Locating Messier 19:

Finding M19’s location in binoculars is quite easy – it’s less than a fistwidth (8 degrees) east of Antares (Alpha Scorpi). However, ‘seeing’ M19 in binoculars (especially smaller ones) is a little more problematic. The steadier the binoculars are, the better your chances, since it will appear almost stellar at first glance. A good indicator is to have optical double 26 Ophiuchi in the field at the 2:00 position and look for the star that won’t quite come to focus in the 8:00 position.

Star 26 also makes for a great finderscope lead when locating M19 in a telescope as well. Even for aperture sizes as small as 114mm, this globular cluster will show quite easily in a telescope and reveal its oblate nature. When aperture size increase to the 8″ range, it will begin resolution and as it nears 12″ or more, you’ll pick up on blue stars.

And for your convenience, here are the quick facts of M19:

Object Name: Messier 19
Alternative Designations: M19, NGC 6273
Object Type: Class VIII Globular Star Cluster
Constellation: Ophiuchus
Right Ascension: 17 : 02.6 (h:m)
Declination: -26 : 16 (deg:m)
Distance: 28.0 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 6.8 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 17.0 (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.

Messier 15 (M15) – The Great Pegasus Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, in our ongoing tribute to Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the M15 globular cluster, one of the oldest and best known star clusters in the night sky. Enjoy!

In the 18th century, French astronomer Charles Messier began noticing a series of “nebulous objects” in the night sky while looking for comets. Not wanting other astronomers to make the same mistake, he began compiling a list of these objects into a catalog. In time, this list would include 100 objects, and came to be known by future astronomers as the Messier Catalog.

One of these objects is the globular cluster known as M15. Located in the northern constellation Pegasus, it is one of the brightest clusters in the night sky (with a visual brightness that is roughly 360,000 times that of our Sun). It is also one of the finest globular clusters in the northern section of the sky, the best deep-sky object in the constellation of Pegasus, and one of the oldest and best known globular clusters.

Description:

Messier 15 is probably the most dense globular cluster in our entire Milky Way galaxy – having already undergone a process of contraction. What does that mean to what you’re seeing? This ball of stars measures about 210 light years across, yet more than half of the stars you see are packed into the central area in a space just slightly more than ten light years in size.

By looking for single stars within globular clusters, the Hubble Space Telescope was either looking for a massive black hole or evidence of a “core collapse” – the intense gravity of so many stars so close together. Although it was peeking nearly 37,000 light-years away, the Hubble was able to resolve hundreds of stars converging on M15’s core. Like magnetism, their gravity would either cause them to attract or repel one another – and a black hole may have formed at some point in the cluster’s 12-billion-year life.

The globular cluster known as Messier 15, located some 35 000 light-years away in the Pegasus constellation. Credit: Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona
The globular cluster known as Messier 15, located some 35 000 light-years away in the Pegasus constellation. Credit: Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona

The study which addressed this data – which appeared in the January 1996 issue of the Astronomical Journal, was led by Puragra Guhathakurta of UCO/Lick Observatory, UC Santa Cruz – asked the question of whether or not the speed of the cluster’s stars could tell us if M15’s dense core was caused by a single huge object, or just mutual attraction. As Guhathakurta stated in the study:

“It is very likely that M15’s stars have concentrated because of their mutual gravity. The stars could be under the influence of one giant central object, although a black hole is not necessarily the best explanation for what we see. But if any globular cluster has a black hole at its center, M15 is the most likely candidate.”

John Bahcall and astrophysicist Jeremiah Ostriker of Princeton University were the first to forward the idea that Messier 15 might be hiding a black hole. While it is distinct from many other globular clusters by having such a dense core, it really isn’t that much different than all the rest of the globular clusters we see. Yet, no where else in our galaxy, except at its core, are the stars that dense!

It is estimated that 30,000 distinct stars exist in the inner 22 light-years of the cluster alone. The closer the Hubble telescope looked, the more stars it found. This increase in stellar density continued all the way to within 0.06 light-years of the center – about 100 times the distance between our Sun and Pluto. “Detecting separate stars that close to the core was at the limit of Hubble’s powers,” says Brian Yanny of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

The location of M15, within the Pegasus Constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)
The location of M15, within the Pegasus Constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

At this point, even the great Hubble could not distinguish individual stars, or locate the exact position of the core. Guhathakurta and is colleagues theorized that the stars crowd even closer inside the radius, so they plotted the distribution of the stars as a function of distance from the core. When the results came back, they had two answers – either a black hole was responsible, or a gravothermal catastrophe called core collapse was the culprit.

“It’s a catastrophe in the sense that once it starts, this process can run away very quickly,” said Guhathakurta. “But other processes could cause the core to bounce back before it collapses all the way.”

At an estimated 13.2 billion years old, it is one of the oldest known globular clusters, but it isn’t done throwing some surprises at us. M15 was the first globular cluster in which a planetary nebula, Pease 1 or K 648 (“K” for “Kuster”), could be identified – and can be seen with larger aperture amateur telescopes. Even stranger is the fact that Messier 15 contains 112 variable stars, and 9 known pulsars – neutron stars which are the leftovers of ancient supernovae. And one of these is a double neutron star system – M15 C.

History of Observation:

M15 was discovered by Jean-Dominique Maraldi on September 7, 1746 while he was looking for a comet. Says he:

“On September 7 I noticed between the stars Epsilon Pegasi and Beta Equulei, a fairly bright nebulous star, which is composed of many stars, of which I have determined the right ascension of 319d 27′ 6″, and its northern declination of 11d 2′ 22”. About 25 years later, Charles Messier would independently rediscover it to add to his own catalog, describing it as: “In the night of June 3 to 4, 1764, I have discovered a nebula between the head of Pegasus and that of Equuleus it is round, its diameter is about 3 minutes of arc, the center is brilliant, I have not distinguished any star; having examined it with a Gregorian telescope which magnifies 104 times, it had little elevated over the horizon, and maybe that observed at a greater elevation one can perceive stars.”

Camera SBIG STX16803 CCD Camera Filters Astrodon Gen II Dates December 2015 Location Mount Lemmon SkyCenter Exposure RGB = 2 : 2 : 2 Hours Acquisition Astronomer Control Panel (ACP), Maxim DL/CCD (Cyanogen), FlatMan XL (Alnitak) Processing CCDStack, Photoshop, PixInsight Credit Line & Copyright Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona
Deep Broadband (RGB) image of M15, taken from the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter. Credit and Copyright: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona

Sir William Herschel would be the first to resolve some of its stars, but not the core. It would be his son John who would later pick up structure. However, like the dutiful and colorful observer that he was, Admiral Smyth will leave us with this lasting impression:

“Although this noble cluster is rated as globular, it is not exactly round, and under the best circumstances is seen as in the diagram, with stragglers branching from a central blaze. Under a moderate magnifying power, there are many telescopic and several brightish stars in the field; but the accumulated mass is completely insulated, and forcibly strikes the senses as being almost infinitely beyond those apparent comets. Indeed, it may be said to appear evidently aggregated by mutual laws, and part of some stupendous and inscrutable scheme of involution; for there is nothing quiescent throughout the immensity of the vast creation.”

Considering Smyth’s observations were made nearly two centuries before we really began to understand what was going on inside Messier 15, you’ll have to admit he was a very good observer!

Locating Messier 15:

Surprisingly enough, globular cluster M15 is easy to find. Once you’ve located the “Great Square” of Pegasus, simply choose its brightest and southwesternmost star – Alpha. Now identify the small, kite shape of the constellation of Delphinus. Roughly halfway between these two (and slightly south), you’ll spy a slightly reddish star – Epsilon Peg (Enif).

By placing Enif in your binoculars or image correct finderscope at the 7:00 position, you can’t miss this bright, compact beauty. Even the smallest of optics will reveal the round glow and telescopes starting at 4″ will begin resolution – while large telescopes will simply amaze you. However, don’t expect to open this globular up to the core region. As already noted, its pretty dense in there!

And here are the quick facts for Messier 15, for your convenience:

Object Name: Messier 15
Alternative Designations: M15, NGC 7078
Object Type: Class IV Globular Cluster
Constellation: Pegasus
Right Ascension: 21 : 30.0 (h:m)
Declination: +12 : 10 (deg:m)
Distance: 33.6 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 6.2 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 18.0 (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

Messier 14 (M14) – the NGC 6402 Globular Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, in our ongoing tribute to Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the M14 globular cluster!

In the 18th century, French astronomer Charles Messier began cataloging all the “nebulous objects” he had come to find while searching the night sky. Having originally mistook these for comets, he compiled a list these objects in the hopes of preventing future astronomers from making the same mistake. In time, the list would include 100 objects, and would come to be known as the Messier Catalog to posterity.

One of these objects was the globular cluster which he would designate as M14. Located in the southern constellation Ophiuchus, this slightly elliptically-shaped stellar swarm contains several hundred thousand stars, a surprising number of which are variables. Despite these stars not being densely concentrated in the central region, this object is not hard to spot for amateur astronomers that are dedicated to their craft!

Description:

Located some 30,000 light years from Earth and measuring 100 light years in diameter, this globular cluster can be found in the southern Ophiuchus constellation, along with several other Messier Objects. Although it began its life some 13.5 billion years ago, it is far from being done changing. It is still shaking intracluster dust from its shoes.

The constellation Ophiuchis. Credit: iau.org
The constellation Ophiuchis. Credit: iau.org

What this means is that M14, like many globular clusters, contains a good deal of matter that it picked up during its many times orbiting the center of our Galaxy. According to studies done by N. Matsunaga (et al):

“Our goal is to search for emission from the cold dust within clusters. We detect diffuse emissions toward NGC 6402 and 2808, but the IRAS 100-micron maps show the presence of strong background radiation. They are likely emitted from the galactic cirrus, while we cannot rule out the possible association of a bump of emission with the cluster in the case of NGC 6402. Such short lifetime indicates some mechanism(s) are at work to remove the intracluster dust… (and) its impact on the chemical evolution of globular clusters.”

Another thing that makes Messier 14 unusual is the presence of CH stars, such as the one that was discovered in 1997. CH stars are a very specific type of Population II carbon stars that can be identified by CH absorption bands in the spectra. Middle aged and metal poor, these underluminous suns are known to be binaries. Patrick Cote, the chief author of the research team that discovered the star, wrote in their research report to the American Astronomical Society:

“We report the discovery of a probable CH star in the core of the Galactic globular cluster M14 (=NGC 6402 = C1735-032), identified from an integrated-light spectrum of the cluster obtained with the MOS spectrograph on the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope. Both the star’s location near the tip of the red giant branch in the cluster color-magnitude diagram and its radial velocity therefore argue for membership in M14. Since the intermediate-resolution MOS spectrum shows not only enhanced CH absorption but also strong Swan bands of C2, M14 joins Centaurus as the only globular clusters known to contain “classical” CH stars. Although evidence for its duplicity must await additional radial velocity measurements, the CH star in M14 is probably, like all field CH stars, a spectroscopic binary with a degenerate (white dwarf) secondary.”

M14 Globular Cluster. Credit: tcaa.us
M14 Globular Cluster. Credit: tcaa.us

History of Observation:

The first recorded observations of the cluster were made by Charles Messier, who described it as a nebula without stars and catalogued it on June 1st, 1764. As he noted in his catalog:

“In the same night of June 1 to 2, 1764, I have discovered a new nebula in the garb which dresses the right arm of Ophiuchus; on the charts of Flamsteed it is situated on the parallel of the star Zeta Serpentis: that nebula is not considerable, its light is faint, yet it is seen well with an ordinary [non-achromatic] refractor of 3 feet & a half [FL]; it is round, & its diameter can be 2 minutes of arc; above it & very close to it is a small star of the nineth magnitude. I have employed for seeing this nebula nothing but the ordinary refractor of 3 feet & a half with which I have not noticed any star; maybe with a larger instrumentone could perceive one. I have determined the position of that nebula by its passage of the Meridian, comparing it with Gamma Ophiuchi, it has resulted for its right ascension 261d 18? 29?, & for its declination 3d 5? 45? south. I have marked that nebula on the chart of the apparent path of the Comet which I have observed last year [the comet of 1769].”

In 1783, William Herschel observed the cluster and was the first to resolve it into individual stars. As he noted, “With a power of 200, I see it consists of stars. They are better visible with 300. With 600, they are too obscure to be distinguished, though the appearance of stars is still preserved. This seems to be one of the most difficult objects to be resolved. With me, there is not a doubt remaining; but another person, in order to form a judgement, ought previously to go through all the several gradations of nebulae which I have resolved into stars.“

As always, it was Admiral William Henry Smyth who provided the most lengthy and detailed description, which he did in July of 1835:

“A large globular cluster of compressed minute stars, on the Serpent-bearer’s left arm. This fine object is of a lucid white colour, and very nebulous in aspect; which may be partly owing to its being situated in a splendid field of stars, the lustre of which interferes with it. By diminishing the field under high powers, some of the brightest of these attendants are excluded, but the cluster loses its definition. It was discovered by Messier in 1764, and thus described: “A small nebula, no star; light faint; form round; and may be seen with a telescope 3 1/2 feet long.” The mean apparent place is obtained by differentiation from Gamma Ophiuchi, from which it is south-by-west about 6deg 1/2, being nearly midway between Beta Scorpii and the tail of Aquila, and 16deg due south of Rasalhague [Alpha Ophiuchi]. Sir William Herschel resolved this object in 1783, with his 20-foot reflector, and he thus entered it: “Extremely bright, round, easily resolvable; with [magnification] 300 I can see the stars. The heavens are pretty rich in stars of a certain size [magnitude, brightness], but they are larger [brighter] than those in the cluster, and easily to be distinguished from them. This cluster is considerably behind the scattered stars, as some of them are projected upon it.” He afterwards added: “From the observations with the 20-foot telescope, which in 1791 and 1799 had the power of discering stars 75-80 times as far as the eye, the profundity of this cluster must be of the 900th order.” “It resembles the 10th Connoissance des temps [Messier 10], which probably would put on the same appearance as this, were it removed half its distance farther from us.”

Finder Chart for M14 (also shown M10 and M12). Credit: freestarcharts.com
Finder Chart for Messier 14 (also showing M10 and M12). Credit: freestarcharts.com

Locating Messier 14:

Messier 14 can be found by first locating Delta Ophiuchi, which M14 is located at about 21 degrees east and 0.4 degrees north from. It can also be found about one-third of the way from Beta to Eta Ophiuchi. If you know where Messier 10 is, take a look 0.8 degrees north and 10 degrees east of it to find M14. The cluster can also be located along the imaginary line from Cebalrai, an orange giant with an apparent magnitude of 2.76 and the fifth brightest star in Ophiuchus, to Antares, the bright red supergiant located in Scorpius.

With an apparent magnitude of +7.6, M14 can be easily observed with binoculars. For those using small telescopes, the bright center and faint halo can be viewed, whereas 8-inch instruments will reveal the cluster’s elliptical shape. To resolve individual stars, you will need a 12-inch telescope or larger. The best time of year to observe the cluster is in the months of May, June and July.

And here are the quick facts for Messier 15, for your convenience:

Object Name: Messier 14
Alternative Designations: M14, NGC 6402
Object Type: Globular Cluster
Constellation: Ophiuchus
Right Ascension: 17 : 37.6 (h:m)
Declination: -03 : 14 (deg: m)
Distance: 30.3 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 7.6 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 11.0 (arc minutes)

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.

Messier 10 (M10) – The NGC 6254 Globular Cluster

Welcome to another installment of Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by taking a look at Messier Object 10.

In the 18th century, French astronomer Charles Messier noted the presence of several “nebulous objects” in the night sky while searching for comets. Hoping to ensure that other astronomers did not make the same mistake, he began compiling a list of 1oo  of them. This list came to be known as the Messier Catalog, and would have far-reaching consequences.

In addition to being as a major milestone in the history of astronomy and the study of Deep Sky Objects. One of these objects is known as Messier 10 (aka. NGC 6254), a globular cluster that is located in the equatorial constellation of Ophiuchus. Of the many globular clusters that appear in this constellation (seven of which were cataloged by Messier himself) M10 is the brightest, and can be spotted with little more than a pair of binoculars. Continue reading “Messier 10 (M10) – The NGC 6254 Globular Cluster”

Messier 5 (M5) – The NGC 5904 Globular Cluster

In the late 18th century, Charles Messier was busy hunting for comets in the night sky, and noticed several “nebulous” objects. After initially mistaking them for the comets he was seeking, he began to compile a list of these objects so other astronomers would not make the same mistake. Known as the Messier Catalog, this list consists of 100 objects, consisting of distant galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters.

Among the many famous objects in this catalog is the M5 globular star cluster (aka. NGC 5904). Located in the galactic halo within the Serpens Constellation, this cluster of stars is almost as old as the Universe itself (13 billion years)! Though very distant from Earth and hard to spot, it is a favorite amongst amateur astronomers who swear by its beauty.

Continue reading “Messier 5 (M5) – The NGC 5904 Globular Cluster”