Put Yourself in the Way of Beauty

Oh my, oh my. Rolando Ligustri captured this scene last night as Comet Q2 Lovejoy swished past the globular cluster M79 in Lepus. If you’ve seen the movie Wild or read the book, you’ll be familiar with the phrase “put yourself in the way of beauty”, a maxim for living life adopted by one of its characters. When I opened up my e-mail today and saw Rolando’s photo, I felt like the beauty truck ran right over me.

Another striking image of the comet's juxtaposition with the globular cluster M79. Lovejoy is presently 48 million miles from Earth; the cluster shines from the immense distance of 410,000 light years. Credit: Chris Schur
Another striking image of the comet’s juxtaposition with the globular cluster M79. Lovejoy is presently 48 million miles from Earth; the cluster lies at the immense distance of 41,000 light years. Credit: Chris Schur

More beautiful images arrived later including this one by Chris Schur of Arizona.

Even with the Moon at first quarter phase, the comet was plainly visible in binoculars last night shining at magnitude +5. I used 8x40s and had no problem seeing Lovejoy’s blobby glow. With a coma about 15-20 arc minutes in diameter or more than half the size of a the Full Moon, it really fills up the field of view when seen through a telescope at low to medium magnification.

A tighter view of the top image shows not only the star cluster but also shows 13th magnitude NGC 1886, an edge-on spiral galaxy. Credit: Rolando Ligustri
A tighter view of the top image shows not only the star cluster but also shows 13th magnitude NGC 1886, an edge-on spiral galaxy. Credit: Rolando Ligustri

If you love the aqua blue hues of the Caribbean, Lovejoy will remind you it’s time to book another tropical vacation. In both my 15-inch (37-cm) and 10-inch (25-cm) reflectors, the coma glowed a delicious pale blue-green in contrast to the pearly white cluster. I encourage you to look for the comet in the next few nights before the Moon is full. Starting on January 6-7, the Moon begins its move out of the evening sky, giving observers with dark skies a chance to view Lovejoy with the naked eye. I’m looking forward to seeing its long, faint tail twist among the stars of Eridanus as the comet rapidly moves northward over the next week.

Using Photoshop I made this drawing of the comet and cluster that captures its visual appearance through the telescope. Credit: Bob King
Using Photoshop I made this drawing of the comet and cluster that captures its visual appearance through the telescope last night December 28th. The nuclear region is very intense and bright and about 10 arc seconds across. Credit: Bob King

For a map on how to find the comet, check my recent article on Lovejoy’s many tails. Cheers to finding beauty the next clear night!

Comet Lovejoy was bright enough to nab in a 15-second time exposure with a 200mm telephoto lens last night. Details: f/2.8 at 13 seconds. Credit: Bob King
Comet Lovejoy was bright enough to nab in a 15-second time exposure with a 200mm telephoto lens last night. Details: f/2.8 at 13 seconds. Credit: Bob King

Diamond Pinpricks: Gorgeous Shot Of Star Group That Once Baffled Astronomers

Is this group of stars belonging to one generation, or more? That’s one of the things that was puzzling astronomers for decades, particularly when they were trying to pin down the age of IC 4499 — the globular cluster you see in this new picture from the Hubble Space Telescope.

While astronomers now know the stars are from a single generation that are about 12 billion years old (see this paper from three years ago), for about 15 years before that at least one paper said IC 4499 was three billion to four billion years younger than that.

“It has long been believed that all the stars within a globular cluster form at the about same time, a property which can be used to determine the cluster’s age,” stated information from the European Space Agency reposted on NASA’s website.

“For more massive globulars however, detailed observations have shown that this is not entirely true — there is evidence that they instead consist of multiple populations of stars born at different times.”

IC 4499 is somewhere in between these extremes, but only has a single generation of stars — its gravity wasn’t quite enough to pull in neighboring gas and dust to create more. Goes to show you how important it is to re-examine the results in science.

Source: NASA and the European Space Agency

So. Many. Stars…

Infrared image of globular cluster 47 Tucanae (NGC 104) captured by ESO’s VISTA telescope.

“My god, it’s full of stars!” said Dave Bowman in the movie 2010 as he entered the monolith, and one could imagine that the breathtaking view before him looked something like this.

Except this isn’t science fiction, it’s reality — this is an image of globular cluster 47 Tucanae taken by the European Southern Observatory’s VISTA telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. It reveals in stunning detail a brilliant collection of literally millions of stars, orbiting our Milky Way galaxy at a distance of 15,000 light-years.

The full image can be seen below.

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47 Tucanae (also known as NGC 104) is located in the southern constellation Tucana. It’s bright enough to be seen without a telescope and, even though it’s very far away for a naked-eye object, covers an area about the size of the full Moon.

In reality the cluster is 124 light-years across.

Although globular clusters like 47 Tucanae are chock-full of stars — many of them very old, even as stars go — they are noticeably lacking in clouds of gas and dust. It’s thought that all the gaseous material has long since condensed to form stars, or else has been blown away by radiation and outbursts from the cluster’s exotic inhabitants.

At the heart of 47 Tucanae lie many curious objects like powerful x-ray sources, rapidly-spinning pulsars, “vampire” stars that feed on their neighbors, and strange blue stragglers — old stars that somehow manage to stay looking young. (You could say that a globular cluster is the cosmic version of a trashy reality show set in Beverly Hills.)

Red giants can be seen surrounding the central part of the cluster, old bloated stars that are running out of fuel, their outer layers expanding.

vista-survey-telescopeThe background stars in the image are part of the Small Magellanic Cloud, which was in the distance behind 47 Tucanae when this image was taken.

VISTA is the world’s largest telescope dedicated to mapping the sky in near-infrared wavelengths. Located at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile, VISTA is revealing new views of the southern sky. Read more about the VISTA survey here.

Image credit: ESO/M.-R. Cioni/VISTA Magellanic Cloud survey. Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: July 16-22, 2012

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! My satellite dish and internet connection has now returned from the land of Oz. While it was great to have a span of days where no electric meant no annoying lights, it also meant creative cooking excursions on the gas grill in 100 degree weather. Ah, well… the things we do for dark skies! This is New Moon week, so get out there and enjoy the Milky Way! Whenever you’re ready, meet me in the back yard…

Monday, July 16 – Today in 1850 at Harvard University, the first photograph of a star (other than the Sun) was made. The honors went to Vega! In 1994, an impact event was about to happen as nearly two dozen fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 were speeding their way to the surface of Jupiter. The result was spectacular, and the visible features left behind on the planet’s atmosphere were the finest ever recorded.

Now let’s return again to the oblate and beautiful M19 and drop two fingerwidths south for another misshapen globular – M62 (Right Ascension: 17 : 01.2 – Declination: -30 : 07).

At magnitude 6, this 22,500 light-year distant Class IV cluster can be spotted in binoculars, but comes to wonderful life in the telescope. First discovered by Messier in 1771, Herschel was the first to resolve it and report on its deformation. Because it is so near to the galactic center, tidal forces have “crushed” it – much like M19. You will note when studying in the telescope that its core is very off center. Unlike M19, M62 has at least 89 known variable stars – 85 more than its neighbor – and the dense core may have undergone collapse. A large number of X-ray binaries have also been discovered within its structure, perhaps caused by the close proximity of stellar members. Enjoy it tonight!

Tuesday, July 17 – If you’re up to another challenge tonight, let’s go hunting Herschel I.44, also known as NGC 6401. You’ll find this 9.5 magnitude globular cluster around two fingerwidths northeast of Theta Ophiuchi and a little more than a degree due east of star 51 (Right Ascension: 17 : 38.6 – Declination: -23 : 55).

Discovered by William Herschel in 1784 and often classed as “uncertain,” today’s powerful telescopes have placed this halo object as a Class VIII and given it a rough distance from the galactic center of 8,800 light-years. Although neither William nor John could resolve this globular, and they listed it originally as a bright nebula, studies in 1977 revealed a nearby suspected planetary nebula named Peterson 1. Thirteen years later, further study revealed this to be a symbiotic star.

Symbiotic stars are a true rarity – not a singular star at all, but a binary system. A red giant dumps mass towards a white dwarf in the form of an accretion disc. When this reaches critical mass, it then causes a thermonuclear explosion resulting in a planetary nebula. While no evidence exists that this phenomenon is physically located within metal-rich NGC 6401, just being able to see it in the same field makes this journey both unique and exciting!

Wednesday, July 18 – On this day 27 years ago, India launched its first satellite (Rohini 1), and 31 years ago in the United States Gemini 10 launched carrying John Young and Michael Collins to space.

Now, let’s carry ourselves into space as we take a very unusual and beautiful journey to a bright and very colorful pair of stars known as Omicron 1 Cygni. Easily located about halfway between Alpha (Deneb) and Delta on the western side, this is a pure delight in binoculars or any size telescope. The striking gold color of 3.7 magnitude 31 Cygni (Omicron 1) is easily highlighted against the blue of same field companion, 5th magnitude 30 Cygni. Although this wide pairing is only an optical one, the K-type giant is a double star – an eclipsing variable around 150 times larger than or own Sun – and is surrounded by a gaseous corona more than double the size as the star itself. If you are using a scope, you can easy spot the blue tinted, 7th magnitude B star about one third the distance as between the two giants. Although our true pair are some 1.2 billion miles apart, they are oriented nearly edge-on from our point of view – allowing the smaller star to be totally eclipsed during each revolution. This total eclipse lasts for 63 days and happens about every 10.4 years, but don’t stay up too late… We’ve still got 7 years to wait!

Thursday, July 19 – Today in 1846, Edward Pickering was born. Although his name is not well known, he became a pioneer in the field of spectroscopy. Pickering was the Harvard College Observatory Director from 1876 to 1919, and it was during his time there that photography and astronomy began to merge. Known as the Harvard Plate Collection, these archived beginnings still remain a valuable source of data.

It’s New Moon, so why not have a look at something that would make Edward Pickering proud? He enthusiastically encouraged amateur astronomers, and founded the American Association of Variable Star Observers – so set your sights on RR Scorpius about two fingerwidths northeast of Eta and less than a fingerwidth southwest M62 (RA 16 56 37.84 Dec -30 34 48.2). This very red Mira type can reach as high as magnitude 5 and drop as low as 12 in about 280 days!

Tonight let’s just enjoy a little stargazing and revel in the beauty of our own galaxy’s spiral arm – the Milky Way. For those living in the city, you owe it to yourself to get away to a dark location to enjoy this veritable “river of stars” which spans out of the galactic center south and runs overhead. Almost directly behind you from the galactic anti-center stretches the Perseus arm, and the sight is a beautiful one. If skies are fine, you can easily see the dark dust rift where the arm separates and the billows of light of unresolved stars. It’s the most glorious sight of summer! While we have many days yet before the Aquarid meteor shower officially reaches its peak, you will be pleasantly surprised at this year’s high activity. They’ve been flying out of the night sky for almost two weeks now, and it would not surprise me if you saw ten or more per hour of these quick, bright visitors.

Friday, July 20 – Today was a busy day in astronomy history! In 1969, the world held its breath as the Apollo 11 lander touched down and Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin became the first humans to touch the lunar surface. We celebrate our very humanity because even Armstrong was so moved that he messed up his lines! The famous words were meant to be “A small step for a man. A giant leap for mankind.” That’s nothing more than one small error for a man, and mankind’s success continued on July 20, 1976 when Viking 1 landed on Mars – sending back the first images ever taken from that planet’s surface.

If you’re out at sunset, be sure to look for the slimmest crescent Moon you can imagine… It will point your way to nearby Mercury! For lucky viewers “down under” this is an occultation event and will only be observable after sunset from southernmost regions of central Australia. Be sure to check the resources for websites like IOTA for specific times and locations.

The first assignment of the evening is a pair of interacting galaxies. 40 degrees northwest of Beta Canum Venaticorum is NGC 4490 (Right Ascension: 12 : 30.6 – Declination: +41 : 38) and smaller, fainter companion NGC 4485 (Right Ascension: 12 : 30.5 – Declination: +41 : 42). This pair, also known as Arp 269, are quite unusual in appearance to the larger scope. NGC 4490 is around magnitude 10 and shows a bright, irregular core region and a rather strange profile. Known as the “Cocoon” galaxy, it appears to almost reach toward its companion 3 degrees to the north. Progressively larger scopes under ideal conditions will be able to make out some faint mottling in the NGC 4490’s structure.

Now let’s honor southern skies by exploring the fantastic, NGC 3372 (Right Ascension: 10 : 43.8 – Declination: -59 : 52) – the Eta Carinae Nebula. As a giant, diffuse nebula with a visual brightness of magnitude 1, (wow!) it contains the most massive and luminous star in our Milky Way galaxy, Eta Carinae. It’s also home to a small cluster, Collinder 228, which is only one of 8 cataloged open clusters within the area of this huge star-forming region; the others are Bochum (Bo) 10, Trumpler (Tr) 14 (also cataloged as Cr 230), Tr 15 (= Cr 231), Cr 232, Tr 16 (= Cr 233), Cr 234, and Bo 11. Star Eta Carinae is involved in open cluster Trumpler 16. This fantastic nebula contains details which northerners can only dream about, such as the dark “Keyhole” and the “Homunkulus” around the giant star itself. A fantastic region for exploration with both telescopes and binoculars!

Saturday, July 21 – Today in 1961, Mercury 4 was launched, sending Gus Grissom into suborbital space on the second manned flight, and he returned safely in Liberty Bell 7.

Since the moonlight will now begin to interfere with our early evening globular cluster studies, let’s waive them for a while as we take a look at some of the region’s most beautiful stars. Tonight your goal is to locate Omicron Ophiuchi, about a fingerwidth northeast of Theta. At a distance of 360 light-years, this system is easily split by even small telescopes. The primary star is slightly dimmer than magnitude 5 and appears yellow to the eye. The secondary is near 7th magnitude and tends to be more orange in color. This wonderful star is part of many double star observing lists, so be sure to note it!

Tonight would be an ideal time to look at a brilliant open cluster about a fist width east of Epsilon Scorpii – M6 (Right Ascension: 17 : 40.1 – Declination: -32 : 13). On a moonless night, the 50 or so members of this 2000 light year distant, 100 million year old cluster can usually be seen unaided as a small fuzzy patch just above the Scorpion’s tail. Tonight we visit because the brighter skies will aid you in seeing the primary stars distinctive asterism. Using binoculars or telescope at lowest power, the outline of stars does truly resemble its namesake – the “Butterfly Cluster”. The M6 is much more than “just a pretty face” and we’ll be back to study under darker skies.

Sunday, July 22 – Tonight instead of lunar exploration, we will note the work of Friedrich Bessel, who was born on this day in 1784. Bessel was a German astronomer and mathematician whose functions, used in many areas of mathematical physics, still carry his name. But, you may put away your calculator, because Bessel was also the very first person to measure a star’s parallax. In 1837, he chose 61 Cygni and the result was no more than a third of an arc second. His work ended a debate that had stretched back two millennia to Aristotle’s time and the Greek’s theories about the distances to the stars.

Although you’ll need to use your finderscope with tonight’s brighter skies, you’ll easily locate 61 between Deneb (Alpha) and Zeta on the eastern side. Look for a small trio of stars and choose the westernmost. Not only is it famous because of Bessel’s work, but it is one of the most noteworthy of double stars for a small telescope. 61 Cygni is the fourth nearest star to Earth, with only Alpha Centauri, Sirius, and Epsilon Eridani closer. Just how close is it? Try right around 11 light-years.

Visually, the two components have a slightly orange tint, are less than a magnitude apart in brightness and have a nice separation of around 30 degrees to the south-southeast. Back in 1792, Piazzi first noticed 61’s abnormally large proper motion and dubbed it “The Flying Star.” At that time, it was only separated by around 10 degrees and the B star was to the northeast. It takes nearly 7 centuries for the pair to orbit each other, but there is another curiosity here. Orbiting the A star around every 4.8 years is an unseen body that is believed to be about 8 times larger than Jupiter. A star – or a planet? With a mass considerably smaller than any known star, chances are good that when you view 61 Cygni, you’re looking toward a distant world!

Until next week, dreams really do come true when you keep on reaching for the stars!

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: June 4-10, 2012

Graphic Courtesy of Dave Reneke.

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Greeting, fellow SkyWatchers! It’s gonna’ be a great week! We start off with a partial lunar eclipse of the Strawberry Moon, head into the historic Venus Transit, study some Herschel objects, catch both the Scorpid and Arietid Meteor Showers, practice some binocular astronomy and even take on some challenge objects! How awesome is that? Whenever you’re ready, just follow me into the back yard…

Monday, June 4 – Tonight the Moon is full. Often referred to as the Full Strawberry Moon, this name was a constant to every Algonquin tribe in North America. But, our friends in Europe referred to it as the Rose Moon. The North American version came about because the short season for harvesting strawberries comes each year during the month of June – so the full Moon that occurs during that month was named for this tasty red fruit!

This evening as the Sun sets and the Moon rises opposite of it, take advantage of some quiet time and really stop to look at the eastern horizon. If you are lucky enough to have clear skies, you will see the Earth’s shadow rising – like a dark, sometimes blue band – that stretches around 180 degrees of horizon. Look just above it for a Rayleigh scattering effect known as the “Belt of Venus”. This beautiful pinkish glow is caused by the backscattering of sunlight and is often referred to as the anti-twilight arch. As the Sun continues to set, this boundary between our shadow and the arch rises higher in the sky and gently blends with the coming night. What you are seeing is the shadow of the Earth’s translucent atmosphere, casting a shadow back upon itself. This happens every night! Pretty cool, huh?

For some of us, it’s eclipse time! According to NASA’s Fred Espenak, most of the Americas will experience moonset before the partial lunar eclipse ends while eastern Asia will miss the beginning of the eclipse because it occurs before moonrise. The Moon’s contact times with Earth’s shadows are: Penumbral Eclipse Begins: 08:48:09 UT, Partial Eclipse Begins: 09:59:53 UT, Greatest Eclipse: 11:03:13 UT, Partial Eclipse Ends: 12:06:30 UT, Penumbral Eclipse Ends: 13:18:17. At the instant of greatest eclipse the umbral eclipse magnitude will reach 0.3705. At that time the Moon will be at the zenith for observers in the South Pacific. In spite of the fact that just a third of the Moon enters the umbral shadow (the Moon’s southern limb dips 12.3 arc-minutes into the umbra) the partial phase still lasts over 2 hours. Be sure to visit the resource pages for a visibility map and links to precise times and locations!

Tuesday, June 5 – Heads up for all observers! Today’s universal date marks an historic event – Venus will transit the Sun! This event will cross international date lines, so be sure to know ahead of time when and where to watch. North America will be able to see the start of the transit, while South Asia, the Middle East, and most of Europe will catch the end of it. For some great information on when, where and how to watch, visit www.transitofvenus.org. If you’re clouded out, there’s plenty of resources on-line to view this rare event. One that promises to have plenty of extra bandwidth to serve visitors is Astronomy Live. Be there!!

For all you Stargazers, keep watch for the Scorpid meteor shower. Its radiant will be near the constellation of Ophiuchus, and the average fall rate will be about 20 per hour with some fireballs.

While you’re out, take the time to check out Alpha Herculis -Ras Algethi. You will find it not only to be an interesting variable, but a colorful double as well. The primary star is one of the largest known red giants and at about 430 light years away, it is also one of the coolest. Its 5.4 magnitude greenish companion star is easily separated in even small scopes – but even it is a binary! This entire star system is enclosed in an expanding gaseous shell that originates from the evolving red giant. Enjoy it tonight.

Wednesday, June 6 – So far we’ve studied many Herschel objects in disguise as Messier catalog items – but we haven’t really focused on some mighty fine galaxies that are within the power of the intermediate to large telescope. Tonight let’s take a serious skywalk as we head to 6 Comae and drop two degrees south.

At magnitude 10.9, Herschel catalog object H I.35 is also known by its New General Catalog number of 4216 (Right Ascension: 12 : 15.9 – Declination: +13 : 09). This splendid edge-on galaxy has a bright nucleus and will walk right out in larger telescopes with no aversion required. But, the most fascinating part about studying anything in the Virgo cluster is about to be revealed.

While studying structure in NGC 4216, averted vision picks up magnitude 12 NGC 4206 (Right Ascension:12 : 15.3 – Declination: +13 : 02) to the south. This is also a Herschel object – H II.135. While it is smaller and fainter, the nucleus will be the first thing to catch your attention – and then you’ll notice it is also an edge-on galaxy! As if this weren’t distracting enough, while re-centering NGC 4216, sometimes the movement is just enough to allow the viewer to catch yet another edge-on galaxy to the north – NGC 4222 (Right Ascension: 12 : 16.4 – Declination: +13 : 19). At magnitude 14, you can only expect to be able to see it in larger scopes, but what a treat this trio is!

Is there a connection between certain types of galaxy structures within the Virgo cluster? Science certainly seems to think so. While low metallicity studies involving these galaxies are going on, research into evolution of galaxy clusters themselves continue to make new strides forward in our understanding of the universe. Capture them tonight!

Thursday, June 7 – If you’re up before dawn the next two days or out just after sunset, enjoy the peak of the June Arietid meteors – the year’s strongest daylight shower – with up to 30 visible per hour.

If you’d like to try your ear at radio astronomy with the offspring of sungrazing asteroid Icarus, tune an FM radio to the lowest frequency not receiving a clear signal. An outdoor antenna pointed at the zenith increases your chances, but even a car radio can pick up strong bursts! Simply turn up the static and listen. Those hums, whistles, beeps, bongs, and occasional snatches of signals are our own radio signals being reflected off the meteor’s ion trail!

Tonight let’s study a radio-source galaxy so bright it can be seen in binoculars – 8.6 magnitude M87 (Right Ascension: 12 : 30.8 – Declination: +12 : 24), about two fingerwidths northwest of Rho Virginis. This giant elliptical was discovered by Charles Messier in 1781 and cataloged as M87. Spanning 120,000 light-years, it’s an incredibly luminous galaxy containing far more mass and stars than the Milky Way – gravitationally distorting its four dwarf satellites galaxies. M87 is known to contain in excess of several thousand globular clusters – up to 150,000 – and far more than our own 200.

In 1918, H. D. Curtis of Lick Observatory discovered something else – M87 has a jet of gaseous material extending from its core and pushing out several thousand light-years into space. This highly perturbed jet exhibits the same polarization as synchrotron radiation – a property of neutron stars. Containing a series of small knots and clouds as observed by Halton Arp at Palomar in 1977, he also discovered a second jet in 1966 erupting in the opposite direction. Thanks to these two properties, M87 made Arp’s “Catalog of Peculiar Galaxies” as number 152.

In 1954 Walter Baade and R. Minkowski identified M87 with radio source Virgo A, discovering a weaker halo in 1956. Its position over an x-ray cloud extending through the Virgo cluster make M87 a source of an incredible amount of x-rays. Because of its many strange properties, M87 remains a target of scientific investigation. The Hubble has shown a violent nucleus surrounded by a fast rotating accretion disc, whose gaseous make-up may be part of a huge system of interstellar matter. As of today, only one supernova event has been recorded – yet M87 remains one of the most active and highly prized study galaxies of all. Capture it tonight!

Friday, June 8 – Born on this date in 1625 was Giovanni Cassini – the most notable observer following Galileo. As head of the Paris Observatory for many years, he was the first to observe seasonal changes on Mars and measure its parallax (and so, its distance). This set the scale of the solar system for the first time. Cassini was the first to describe Jovian features, and studied the Galilean moons’ orbits. He also discovered four moons of Saturn, but he is best remembered for being the first to see the namesake division between the A and B rings.

Why not honor Cassini’s work by visiting Saturn tonight? In case you hadn’t noticed, the beautiful yellowish “star” has been on the move and is now around a degree away to the southeast from a previous study star – Porrima! Not only is this a lovely visual, but an easy way to find Saturn if you’re new to the game. Seeing the Cassini Division in Saturn’s ring structure and some of the smaller moons will require at least a 114mm telescope and steady seeing. Use as much magnification as conditions will allow and look for unusual things – like seeing the planet edge through the gap!

Tonight we’ll use Rho Virginis as a stepping stone to more galaxies. Get on your mark and move one and a half degrees north for M59 (Right Ascension:12 : 42.0 – Declination: +11 : 39)…

First discovered in 1779 by J. G. Koehler while studying a comet, this 11th magnitude elliptical galaxy was observed and labeled by Messier who was just a bit behind him. Much denser than our own galaxy, M59 is only about one-fourth the size of the Milky Way. In a smaller telescope, it will appear as a faint oval, while larger telescopes will make out a more concentrated core region.

Now shift one half degree east for brighter and larger M60. Also caught first by Koehler on the same night as M59, it was “discovered” a day later by yet another astronomer who had missed M59! It took Charles Messier another four days until this 10th magnitude galaxy interfered with his comet studies and was cataloged. At around 60 million light-years away, M59 is one of the largest ellipticals known and has five times more mass than our galaxy. As a study object of the Hubble Telescope, this giant has shown a concentrated core with over 2 billion solar masses. Photographed and studied by large terrestrial telescopes, M59 may contain as many as 5100 globular clusters in its halo.

While our backyard equipment is essentially revealing M59?s core, there is a curiosity here. It shares “space” with spiral galaxy NGC 4647 (Right Ascension: 12 : 43.5 – Declination: +11 : 35). Telescopes of even modest aperture will pick up the nucleus and faint structure of this small face-on galaxy. Harlow Shapely found the pair odd because – while they are relatively close in astronomical terms – they are very different in age and development. Halton Arp also studied this combination of an elliptical galaxy affecting a spiral and cataloged it as “Peculiar Galaxy 116.” Be sure to mark your notes!

Saturday, June 9 – Today is the birthday of Johann Gottfried Galle. Born in Germany in 1812, Galle was the first observer to locate Neptune. He is also known for being Encke’s assistant – and he’s one of the few astronomers ever to have observed Halley’s Comet twice. Unfortunately, he died two months after the comet passed perihelion in 1910, but at a ripe old age of 98! I wonder if he knew Mark Twain?

Tonight while we’re out, let’s have a look at a Virgo galaxy bright enough for smaller instruments and detailed enough to delight larger scopes. Starting at Delta Virginis, move about a fistwidth to the west where you will see two fainter stars, 16 (south) and 17 (north) Virginis. You’ll find M61 (Right Ascension:12 : 21.9 – Declination: +04 : 28) located about one-half degree south of the yellow double star 17.

Its discovery was credited to Barnabus Oriani during that fateful year of 1779 when Messier was so avid about chasing a comet that he mistook it for one. While Charles had seen it on the same night, it took him two days to figure out it wasn’t moving and four more before he cataloged it. Fortunately, 7 years later Mr. Herschel assigned it his own number of H I.139, even though he wasn’t fond of assigning his own number to Messier catalog objects.

At near 10th magnitude, this spiral galaxy will show a slightly elongated form and brighter core area to small telescopes, and really come to life in larger ones. Close to our own Milky Way galaxy in size, this larger member of the Virgo cluster has great spiral arm structure that displays both knots and dark dustlanes – as well as a beautifully developed nucleus region. M61 has also been host to four supernova events between 1926 and 1999 – all of which have been well within range of amateur telescopes.

For an added Herschel treat tonight for larger scopes, hop back to star 17 and head about one half degree due west for near galactic pair NGC 4281 (H II.573) and NGC 4273 (H II.569). Here is a study of two galaxies similar in magnitude (12) and size – but of different structure. Northeastern NGC 4281 (Right Ascension: 12 : 20.4 – Declination: +05 : 23) is an elliptical, and by virtue of its central concentration will appear slightly larger and brighter – while southwestern NGC 4273 (Right Ascension: 12 : 19.9 – Declination: +05 : 21) is an irregular spiral which will appear brighter in the middle but more elongated and faded along its frontiers. Sharp-eyed observers may also note fainter (13th magnitude) NGC 4270 (Right Ascension: 12 : 19.8 – Declination: +05 : 28) north of this pairing.

Now, go back to Rho once again and about a fingerwidth northwest for yet another bright galaxy – M58 – a spiral galaxy actually discovered by Messier in 1779! As one of the brightest galaxies in the Virgo cluster, M58 (Right Ascension: 12 : 37.7 – Declination: +11 : 49) is one of only four that have barred structure. It was cataloged by Lord Rosse as a spiral in 1850. In binoculars, it will look much like our previously studied ellipticals, but a small telescope under good conditions will pick up the bright nucleus and a faint halo of structure – while larger ones will see the central concentration of the bar across the core. Chalk up another Messier study for both binoculars and telescopes and let’s get on to something really cool!

Around a half degree southwest are NGC 4567 (Right Ascension: 12 : 36.5 – Declination: +11 : 15) and NGC 4569 (Right Ascension: 12 : 36.8 – Declination: +13 : 10). L. S. Copeland dubbed them the “Siamese Twins,” but this galaxy pair is also considered part of the Virgo cluster. While seen from our viewpoint as touching galaxies, no evidence exists of tidal filaments or distortions in structure, making them a line of sight phenomenon and not interacting members. While that might take little of the excitement away from the “Twins,” a supernova event has been spotted in NGC 4569 as recently as 2004. While the duo is visible in smaller scopes as two, with soft twin nuclei, intermediate and larger scopes will see an almost V-shaped or heart-shaped pattern where the structures overlap. If you’re doing double galaxy studies, this is a fine, bright one! If you see a faint galaxy in the field as well, be sure to add NGC 4564 (Right Ascension: 12 : 36.4 – Declination: +11 : 26) to your notes.

Sunday, June 10 – While I’m sure that unaided eye viewers and binocular users are tired of the galaxy hunt, be sure to take the time to look at many old favorites that are now in view. To the eye, one of the most splendid signs of the changing seasons is the Ursa Major Moving Group which sits above Polaris for northern hemisphere observers. For the southern hemisphere, the return of Crux serves the same purpose.

Old favorites have now begun to appear again, such as Hercules, Cygnus and Scorpius… and with them a wealth of starry clusters and nebulae that will soon come into view as the night deepens and the hour grows late. Before we leave Virgo for the year, there is one last object that is seldom explored and such a worthy target that we must visit it before we go. Its name is NGC 5634 and you’ll find it halfway between Iota and Mu Virginis (RA 14 29.37 Dec -05 58.35)…First discovered by Sir William Herschel on March 5, 1785 and cataloged as H I.70, this magnitude 9.5 small globular cluster isn’t for everyone, but thanks to an 11th magnitude line-of-sight star on its eastern edge, it sure is interesting. At class IV, it’s more concentrated than many globular clusters, although its 19th magnitude members make it near impossible to resolve with backyard equipment.

Located a bit more than 82,000 light-years from our solar system and about 69,000 light-years from the galactic center, you’ll truly enjoy this globular for the randomly scattered stellar field which accompanies it. In the finderscope, an 8th magnitude star will lead the way – not truly a member of the cluster, but one that lies between us. Capturable in scopes as small as 4.5?, look for a concentrated central area surrounded by a haze of stellar members – a huge number of which are recently discovered variables. While you look at this globular, keep this in mind… Based on observations with the Italian Telescopio Nazionale Galileo, it is now surmised that the NGC 5634 globular cluster has the same position and radial velocity as does the Sagittarius dwarf spheroidal galaxy. Because of the dwarf galaxy’s metal-poor population of stars, it is believed that NGC 5634 may have once been part of the dwarf galaxy – and been pulled away by our own tidal field to become part of the Sagittarius stream!

Until next week? Wishing you clear skies for the Partial Lunar Eclipse, Venus Transit and the meteor showers!

Hubble Gets Best Look Yet At Messier 9

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First discovered by Charles Messier in 1764, the globular cluster Messier 9 is a vast swarm of ancient stars located 25,000 light-years away, close to the center of the galaxy. Too distant to be seen with the naked eye, the cluster’s innermost stars have never been individually resolved… until now.

This image from the Hubble Space Telescope is the most detailed view yet into Messier 9, capturing details of over 250,000 stars within it. Stars’ shape, size and color can be determined — giving astronomers more clues as to what the cluster’s stars are made of. (Download a large 10 mb JPEG file here.)

Hot blue stars as well as cooler red stars can be seen in Messier 9, along with more Sun-like yellow stars.

Unlike our Sun, however, Messier 9’s stars are nearly ten billion years old — twice the Sun’s age — and are made up of much less heavy elements.

Since heavy elements (such as carbon, oxygen and iron) are formed inside the cores of stars and dispersed into the galaxy when the stars eventually go supernova, stars that formed early on were birthed from clouds of material that weren’t yet rich in such elements.

Zoom into the Messier 9 cluster with a video from NASA and the European Space Agency below:

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA. See more at www.spacetelescope.org.

Image credit: NASA & ESA. Video: NASA, ESA, Digitized Sky Survey 2, N. Risinger (skysurvey.org)

NGC 1846 – Hubble Reveals Peculiar Life And Death Of A Stellar Population

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About 160,000 light years away in the direction of southern constellation Doradus, sits a globular cluster. It’s not a new target for the Hubble Space Telescope, but it has had a lot to say for itself over the last twelve years. It’s actually part of the Large Magellanic Cloud, but it’s no ordinary ball of stars. When it comes to age, this particular region is mighty complex…

In a 34 minute exposure taken almost a half dozen years ago, the Hubble snapped both life and death combined in an area where all stars were once assumed to be the same age. Globular clusters, as we know, are spherical collections of stars bound by gravity which orbit the halo of many galaxies. At one time, astronomers assumed their member stars were all the same age – forming into their own groups at around the same time the parent galaxy formed. But now, evidence points toward these balls of stars as having their own agenda – and may have evolved independently over the course of several hundreds of million years. What’s more, we’re beginning to learn that globular cluster formation may differ from galaxy to galaxy, too. Why? Chances are they may have encountered additional molecular clouds during their travels which may have triggered another round of star formation.

“An increasing number of photometric observations of multiple stellar populations in Galactic globular clusters is seriously challenging the paradigm of GCs hosting single, simple stellar populations.” says Giampaolo Piotto of the University of Padova, Italy. “These multiple populations manifest themselves in a split of different evolutionary sequences as observed in the cluster color-magnitude diagrams. Multiple stellar populations have been identified in Galactic and Magellanic Cloud clusters.”

However, it’s not the individual stars which make this Hubble image such a curiosity, it’s the revelation of a planetary nebula. This means a huge disparity in the member star’s ages…. one of up to 300 million years. Is it possible that the shell and remains of this dead star is a line-of-sight phenomenon, or is it truly a cluster member?

“We report on Hubble Space Telescope/ACS photometry of the rich intermediate-age star cluster NGC 1846 in the Large Magellanic Cloud, which clearly reveals the presence of a double main-sequence turn-off in this object. Despite this, the main-sequence, subgiant branch and red giant branch are all narrow and well defined, and the red clump is compact.” says A. D. Mackey and P. Broby Nielsen. ” We examine the spatial distribution of turn-off stars and demonstrate that all belong to NGC 1846 rather than to any field star population. In addition, the spatial distributions of the two sets of turn-off stars may exhibit different central concentrations and some asymmetries. By fitting isochrones, we show that the properties of the colour–magnitude diagram can be explained if there are two stellar populations of equivalent metal abundance in NGC 1846, differing in age by around 300 million years.”

So what’s wrong with the picture? Apparently nothing. The findings have been studied and studied again for errors and even “contamination” by field stars in relation to NGC1846’s main sequence turn off. It’s simply a bit of a cosmic riddle just waiting for an explanation.

“We propose that the observed properties of NGC 1846 can be explained if this object originated via the tidal capture of two star clusters formed separately in a star cluster group in a single giant molecular cloud.” concludes Mackey and Nielson. “This scenario accounts naturally for the age difference and uniform metallicity of the two member populations, as well as the differences in their spatial distributions.”

Original Story Source: NASA’s Hubble Finds Stellar Life and Death in a Globular Cluster. For Further Reading: A double main-sequence turn-off in the rich star cluster NGC 1846 in the Large Magellanic Cloud, Population Parameters of Intermediate-Age Star Clusters in the Large Magellanic Cloud. I. NGC 1846 and its Wide Main-Sequence Turnoff and Multiple stellar populations in three rich Large Magellanic Cloud star clusters.