Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast – September 17-23, 2012

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! This looks like a great week to take in some galactic star clusters and enjoy the Andromeda Galaxy! Some lucky viewers are in for a Mars occultation event and everyone wins with a meteor shower. What’s that, you say? Darn right. This week is also the time of the Autumnal Equinox! When ever you’re ready to learn more, just meet me in the back yard…

Monday, September 17 – Today in 1789, William Herschel discovered Saturn’s moon Mimas.

Tonight we’ll hunt with the “Fox” as we head to Vulpecula to try two more open star cluster studies. The first can be done easily with large binoculars or a low power scope. It’s a rich beauty that lies in the constellation of Vulpecula, but is more easily found by moving around 3 degrees southeast of Beta Cygni.

Known as Stock 1, this stellar swarm contains around 50 or so members of varying magnitudes that you will return to often. With a visual magnitude of near 5, loose associations of stars – like Stock clusters – are the subject of recent research. The latest information indicates that the members of this cluster are truly associated with one another.

A little more than a degree to the northeast is NGC 6815 (Right Ascension:19 : 40.9 – Declination: +26 : 51). While this slightly more compressed open cluster has no real status amongst deep sky objects, it is another one to add to your collection of things to do and see!

Tuesday, September 18 – Tonight we’ll start with an asterism known as the “Coat Hanger,” but it is also known as Brocchi’s Cluster, or Collinder 399. Let the colorful double star Beta Cygni – Albireo – be your guide as you move about 4 degrees to its south-southwest. You will know this cluster when you see it, because it really does look like a coat hanger! Enjoy its red stars.

First discovered by Al Sufi in 964 AD, this 3.5 magnitude collection of stars was again recorded by Hodierna. Thanks to its expansive size of more than 60 arc minutes, it escaped the catalogues of both Messier and Herschel. Only around a half dozen stars share the same proper motion, which may make it a cluster much like the Pleiades, but studies suggest it is merely an asterism…but one with two binary stars at its heart.
And for larger scopes? Fade east to the last prominent star in the cluster and power up. NGC 6802 (Right Ascension: 19 : 30.6 – Declination: +20 : 16) awaits you! At near magnitude 9, Herschel VI.14 is a well compressed open cluster of faint members. The subject of ongoing research in stellar evolution, this 100,000 year old cluster is on many observing challenge lists!

Wednesday, September 19 – On this day in 1848, William Boyd was watching Saturn – and discovered its moon Hyperion. On this date a moon will be on everyone’s mind as our Moon occults Mars (Pacific, South America, SW Atlantic). Be sure to check information such as the International Occultation Timing Assoication (IOTA) for specific details in your area. Even if you aren’t in a position to catch the occultation, it will still make a splendid scene! Also today in 1988, Israel launched its first satellite. How long has it been since you’ve watched an ISS pass or an iridium flare? Both are terrific events that don’t require any special equipment to be seen. Be sure to check with Heavens Above for accurate times and passes in your location and enjoy!

Tonight we again visit the M15 (Right Ascension: 21 : 30.0 – Declination: +12 : 10) globular and learn more about the scale of the Universe – circa 1900. On a decent night, a modest telescope will resolve about a dozen 13th magnitude stars outside M15?s core region. Most of these stars are red giants with absolute magnitudes of -2. Such stars appear 15 magnitudes fainter than they would be if they were at an astronomically standardized distance. Based on this 15 magnitude loss in intensity, we should be able to figure out how far away M15 is, but this is circular reasoning. In the early 1900s, astronomers didn’t know that the brightest stars in M15 were absolute magnitude -2. They first needed to know how far away the globular was to make sense of that.

Here’s where the H-R diagram helps out.

The most massive and swollen red giants (those nearing the end of their lives such as Betelgeuse and Antares) can be as luminous as absolute magnitude -6, but you can’t assume that the brightest red giants in a globular cluster are as bright as Antares and Betelgeuse. Why? Because we later discovered that all stars in a globular cluster entered the main sequence about the same time – some 12 billion years ago. Meanwhile, the very brightest ones – the Denebs – are no longer around. They exited the main sequence, became red giants and exploded a long, time ago, and possibly in a dwarf galaxy far, far away!

Now let’s take a a stellar tour of Lyra! First we’ll look at a double which has a close separation – Epsilon Lyrae. Known to most of us as the “Double Double,” look about a finger width northeast of Vega. Even the slightest optical aid will reveal this tiny star as a pair, but the real treat is with a telescope – for each component is a double star! Both sets of stars appear as primarily white and both are very close to each other in magnitude. What is the lowest power that you can use to split them?

Now let’s head for the northeast corner of the little parallelogram that is part of Lyra for easy unaided eye and binocular double Delta 1 and 2 Lyrae.

The westernmost Delta 1 is about 1100 light-years away and is a class B dwarf, but take a closer look at brighter Delta 2. This M-class giant is only 900 light-years away. Perhaps 75 million years ago, it, too, was a B class star, but it now has a dead helium core and it keeps on growing. While it is now a slight variable, it may in the future become a Mira-type. A closer look will show that it also has a true binary system nearby – a tightly matched 11th magnitude system. Oddly enough they are the same distance away as Delta-2 and are believed to be physically related.

Thursday, September 20 – Now let the Moon head west, because on this night in 1948, the 48? Schmidt telescope at Mt. Palomar was busy taking pictures. The first photographic plate was being exposed on a galaxy by the same man who ground and polished the corrector plate for this scope – Hendricks. His object of choice was reproduced as panel 18 in the Hubble Atlas of Galaxies and tonight we’ll join his vision as we take a look at the fantastic M31 – the Andromeda Galaxy.

Seasoned amateur astronomers can literally point to the sky and show you the location of M31 (Right Ascension: 0 : 42.7 – Declination: +41 : 16), but perhaps you have never tried. Believe it or not, this is an easy galaxy to spot even under the moonlight. Simply identify the large diamond-shaped pattern of stars that is the “Great Square of Pegasus.” The northernmost star is Alpha, and it is here we will begin our hop. Stay with the north chain of stars and look four finger-widths away for an easily seen star. The next along the chain is about three finger-widths away… And we’re almost there. Two more finger-widths to the north and you will see a dimmer star that looks like it has something smudgy nearby. Point your binoculars there, because that’s no cloud – it’s the Andromeda Galaxy!

Friday, September 21 – And what was Sir William Herschel doing on this date a couple of centuries ago? You can bet he was out telescoping; and his discoveries on this night were many. How about if we take a look at two logged on September 21 which made the Herschel “400? list?

Our first stop is northern Cygnus for NGC 7086 (RA 21 30 30 Dec +51 35 00). Located on the galactic equator about five degrees west of Beta Cephei, our target is an open cluster. At magnitude 8.4, this loose collection will be difficult for the smaller scope, and show as not much more than an arrow-like asterism. However, larger scopes will be able to resolve many more stars, arrayed in long loops and chains around the brighter members. Although it’s sparse, NGC 7086 has been studied for metal abundance, galactic distance, membership richness, and its luminosity function. Be sure to mark your notes for H VI.32, logged by Herschel in 1788.

Now hop on over to Andromeda for NGC 752 (RA 01 57 41 Dec +37 47 06). You’ll find it just a few degrees south of Gamma and in the field north of star 56. Located 1300 light-years away, there’s a strong possibility this cluster was noted first by Hodierna before being cataloged by Herschel on this night (1786). At near magnitude 5, this “400? object is both large and bright enough to be seen in binoculars or small telescopes, and people have often wondered why Messier did not discover it. The star-studded field containing about 70 members of various magnitudes belong to H VII.32 – a very old cluster which has more recently been studied for its metallicity and the variations in the magnetic fields of its members. Enjoy them both tonight! Sir William did…

Saturday, September 22 – Today marks the universal date of Autumnal Equinox. Enjoy this “equal” period of day and night!

Tonight we’ll return again to Vulpecula – but with a different goal in mind. What we’re after requires dark skies – but can be seen in both binoculars and a small telescope. Once you’ve found Alpha, begin about two fingerwidths southeast and right on the galactic equator you’ll find NGC 6823 (Right Ascension: 19 : 43.1 – Declination: +23 : 18).

The first thing you will note is a fairly large, somewhat concentrated magnitude 7 open cluster. Resolved in larger telescopes, the viewer may note these stars are the hot, blue/white variety. For good reason. NGC 6823 only formed about 2 billion years ago. Although it is some 6000 light-years away and occupies around 50 light-years of space, it’s sharing the field with something more – a very large emission/reflection nebula, NGC 6820 (Right Ascension: 19 : 43.1 – Declination: +23 : 17).

In the outer reaches of the star cluster, new stars are being formed in masses of gas and dust as hot radiation is shed from the brightest of the stellar members of this pair. Fueled by emission, NGC 6820 isn’t always an easy visual object – it is faint and covers almost four times as much area as the cluster. But trace the edges very carefully, since the borders are much more illuminated than the region of the central cluster. Take the time to really observe this one! Its processes are very much like those of the “Trapezium” area in the Orion nebula. Be sure to mark your observing notes. NGC 6823 is Herschel VII.18 and NGC 6820 is also known as Marth 401!

Now we’re off to a spectacular open cluster – NGC 6940. At close to magnitude 6, you’ll find this unsung symphony of stars around three fingerwidths southwest of Epsilon Cygni (RA 20 34 24.00 Dec +28 17 -0.0).

Discovered by Sir William Herschel on Oct 15, 1784, and logged as H VIII.23, this intermediate aged galactic cluster will blow your mind in larger aperture. Visible in binoculars, as size increases the field explodes into about 100 stars in a highly compressed, rich cloud. Although it is not an often visited cluster, it is part of many observing challenge lists. Use low power to get the full effect of this stunning starfield!

Sunday, September 23 – On this day in 1846, Johann Galle of the Berlin Observatory makes a visual discovery. While at the telescope, Galle sees and identifies the planet Neptune for the first time in history. On this day in 1962, the prime time cartoon “The Jetsons” premiered. Think of all the technology this inspired!

Rather than doing lunar work tonight, why not wait until the Moon has westered and have an “Autumn Planetary Marathon”? Start easy with M57 between Gamma and Beta Lyrae. Head north-northwest to the “Cat’s Eye” (NGC 6543) roughly between Delta and Zeta Draconis – you’ll need your charts for this one! Now southwest to the “Blinking Planetary” (NGC 6543) – found less than three degrees east-southeast of Iota Cygni. Continue east-southeast a little less than 6 degrees past Deneb to the “Box Planetary” – NGC 7027. Now on to the brightest of the ten – M27. The “Dumbbell Nebula” is located a little more than 3 degrees north of Gamma Sagittae. Now drop two hand spans south to the “Little Gem” (NGC 6818) – around 7 degrees northeast of Rho Sagittarii.

One hand span east of the “Little Gem” leads you toward the “Saturn Nebula” in Aquarius – a little more than a degree west of Nu. Now it’s a huge jump of more than two hand spans west-northwest to tiny NGC 6572 – located around two finger-widths south-southeast of 72 Ophiuchi. Continue on to compact NGC 6790 a finger-width south of Delta Aquilae. Did you find them all? Well, if the “Cat’s Eye” is the toughest to locate, then NGC 6790 is the hardest to identify. Good going! But don’t stop now… Two hand spans west-northwest leads to NGC 6210 – best located using pointer stars Gamma and Beta Herculis. Excellent work!

Ready for the finale? Now, kick back… relax… and watch the Alpha Aurigid meteor shower. Face northeast and look for the radiant near Capella. The fall rate is around 12 per hour, and they are fast and leave trails!

Until next week? Wishing you clear skies…

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: August 6-12, 2012

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! While you start your observing week out by watching the Mars Curiosity Landing, be sure to step outside and view the Aquarid meteor shower, too! It’s going to be a grand week for globular cluster studies and breezing along the Milky Way. Whenever you’re ready to learn some more history, mystery and just plain fun things about the night sky, then meet me in the back yard.

Monday, August 6 – Today in 2001 the Galileo spacecraft made its flyby of Jupiter’s moon – Io -sending back incredible images of the surface. For southern hemisphere observers, be on watch as the Iota Aquarid meteor shower peaks on this Universal date.

Tonight our studies of globular clusters continues as we look deeper into structure. As a rule, globular clusters normally contain a large number of variable stars, and most are usually the RR Lyrae type such as in earlier study M54. At one time they were known as “cluster variables,” with their number differing from one globular to another. Many globulars also contain vast numbers of white dwarfs. Some have neutron stars which are detected as pulsars, but out of all 151, only four have planetary nebulae in them.

Now, let us head toward the emerging constellation of Pegasus and the magnitude 6.5, class IV M15 (Right Ascension: 21 : 30.0 – Declination: +12 : 10). Easily located with even small binoculars about four degrees northwest of Enif, this magnificent globular cluster is a true delight in a telescope. Amongst the globulars, M15 ranks third in variable star population with 112 identified. As one of the densest of clusters, it is surprising that it is considered to be only class III. Its deeply concentrated core is easily apparent, and has begun the process of core collapse. The central core itself is very small compared to the cluster’s true size and almost half M15?s mass is contained within it. Although it has been studied by the Hubble, we still do not know if this density is caused by the cluster stars’ mutual gravity, or if it might disguise a supermassive object similar to those in galactic nuclei.

M15 was the first globular cluster in which a planetary nebula, known as Pease 1, could be identified. Larger aperture scopes can easily see it at high power. Surprisingly, M15 also is home to 9 known pulsars, which are neutron stars left behind from previous supernovae during the cluster’s evolution, and one of these is a double neutron star. While total resolution is impossible, a handful of bright stars can be picked out against that magnificent core region and wonderful chains and streams of members await your investigation tonight!

Tuesday, August 7 – On this date in 1959, Explorer 6 became the first satellite to transmit photographs of the Earth from its orbit.

Tonight, let’s return again to look at two giant globular clusters roughly equal in size, but not equal in class. To judge them fairly, you must use the same eyepiece. Start first by re-locating previous study M4. This is a class IX globular cluster. Notice the powder-like qualities. It might be heavily populated, but it is not dense. Now return to previous study M13. This is a class V globular cluster. Most telescopes will make out at least some resolution and a distinct core region. It is the level of condensation that determines the class. It is no different from judging magnitudes and simply takes practice.

Try your hand at M55 (Right Ascension:19 : 40.0 – Declination: -30 : 58) along the bottom of the Sagittarius “teapot” – it’s a class XI. Although it is a full magnitude brighter than class I M75, which we looked at earlier in the week, can you tell the difference in concentration? For those with GoTo systems, take a quick hop through Ophiuchus and look at the difference between NGC 6356 (class II) and NGC 6426 (class IX). If you want to try one that they can’t even classify? Look no further than M71 (Right Ascension: 19 : 53.8 – Declination: +18 : 47) in Sagitta. It’s all a wonderful game and the most fun comes from learning!

In the meantime, don’t forget all those other wonderful globular clusters such as 47 Tucanae, Omega Centauri, M56, M92, M28 and a host of others!

Wednesday, August 8 – Today in 2001, the Genesis Solar Particle Sample Return mission was launched. In September of 2004, it crash landed in the Utah desert with its precious payload. Although some of the specimens were contaminated, some did survive the mishap. So what is “star stuff?” Mostly highly charged particles generated from a star’s upper atmosphere and flowing out in a state of matter known as plasma…

Tonight let’s study one of the grandest of all solar winds as we seek out an area about three fingerwidths above the Sagittarius “teapot’s spout” as we have a look at magnificent M8 (Right Ascension: 18 : 03.8 – Declination: -24 : 23), the “Lagoon Nebula.”

Visible to the unaided eye as a hazy spot in the Milky Way, fantastic in binoculars, and an area truly worth study in any size scope, this 5200 light-year area of emission, reflection and dark nebulae has a rich history. Its involved star cluster – NGC 6530 – was first discovered by Flamsteed around 1680, and the nebula by Le Gentil in 1747. Cataloged by Lacaille as III.14 about 12 years before Messier listed it as number 8, its brightest region was recorded by John Herschel and the dark nebulae were discovered by Barnard.

Tremendous areas of starbirth are taking place in this region; while young, hot stars excite the gases in a are known as the “Hourglass,” around Herschel star 36 and 9 Sagittarius. Look closely around cluster NGC 6530 for Barnard dark nebulae B89 and B296 at the nebula’s southern edge. No matter how long you chose to swim in the “Lagoon” you will sure find more and more things to delight both the mind and the eye!

Thursday, August 9 – Today in 1976, the Luna 24 mission was launched on a return mission of its own – not to retrieve solar winds samples, but lunar soil! Remember this mission as we take a look at its landing site in the weeks ahead.

Tonight we’ll return to the nebula hunt as we head about a fingerwidth north and just slightly west of M8 for the “Trifid”…

M20 (Right Ascension: 18 : 02.3 – Declination: -23 : 02) was discovered by Messier on June 5, 1764, and much to his credit, he described it as a cluster of stars encased in nebulosity. This is truly a wonderful observation since the Trifid could not have been easy given his equipment. Some 20 years later William Herschel (although he usually avoided repeating Messier objects) found M20 of enough interest to assign separate designations to parts of this nebula – IV.41, V.10, V.11, V.12. The word “Trifid” was used to describe its beauty by John Herschel.

While M20 is a very tough call in binoculars, it is not impossible with good conditions to see the light of an area that left its home nearly a millennium ago. Even smaller scopes will pick up this round, hazy patch of both emission and reflection, but you will need aversion to see the dark nebula which divides it. This was cataloged by Barnard as B85. Larger telescopes will find the Trifid as one of the very few objects that actually appears much in the eyepiece as it does in photographs – with each lobe containing beautiful details, rifts and folds best seen at lower powers. Look for its cruciform star cluster and its fueling multiple system while you enjoy this triple treat tonight!

Friday, August 10 – Today in 1966 Lunar Orbiter 1 was successfully launched on its mission to survey the Moon. In the weeks ahead, we’ll take a look at what this mission sent back!

Tonight we’ll look at another star forming region as we head about a palm’s width north of the lid star (Lambda) in the Sagittarius teapot as we seek out “Omega”…

Easily viewed in binoculars of any size and outstanding in every telescope, the 5000 light-year distant Omega Nebula was first discovered by Philippe Loys de Cheseaux in 1745-46 and later (1764) cataloged by Messier as object 17. This beautiful emission nebula is the product of hot gases excited by the radiation of newly born stars. As part of a vast region of interstellar matter, many of its embedded stars don’t show in photographs, but reveal themselves beautifully to the eye of the telescope. As you look at its unique shape, you realize that many of these areas are obscured by dark dust, and this same dust is often illuminated by the stars themselves.

Often known as the “Swan,” M17 (Right Ascension: 18 : 20.8 – Declination: -16 : 11) will appear as a huge, glowing check mark or ghostly “2? in the sky – but power up if you use a larger telescope and look for a long, bright streak across its northern edge, with extensions to both the east and north. While the illuminating stars are truly hidden, you will see many glittering points in the structure itself and at least 35 of them are true members of this region spanning about 40 light-years that could contain up to 800 solar masses. It is awesome…

Saturday, August 11 – On this date in 1877, Asaph Hall of the U.S. Naval Observatory was very busy. This night would be the first time he would see Mars’ outer satellite Deimos! Six nights later, he observed Phobos, giving Mars its grand total of two moons.

Tonight after midnight is the peak of the Perseid meteor shower, and this year there’s not so much Moon to contend with! Now let’s sit back and talk about the Perseids while we watch…

The Perseids are undoubtedly the most famous of all meteor showers and never fail to provide an impressive display. Their activity appears in Chinese history as far back as 36 AD. In 1839, Eduard Heis was the first observer to give an hourly count, and discovered their maximum rate was around 160 per hour at that time. He, and other observers, continued their studies in subsequent years to find that this number varied.

Giovanni Schiaparelli was the first to relate the orbit of the Perseids to periodic comet Swift-Tuttle (1862 III). The fall rates have both risen and fallen over the years as the Perseid stream was studied more deeply, and many complex variations were discovered. There are actually four individual streams derived from the comet’s 120 year orbital period which peak on slightly different nights, but tonight through tomorrow morning at dawn is our accepted peak.

Meteors from this shower enter Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 60 km/sec (134,000 miles per hour), from the general direction of the border between the constellations Perseus and Cassiopeia. While they can be seen anywhere in the sky, if you extend their paths backward, all the true members of the stream will point back to this region of the sky. For best success, position yourself so you are generally facing northeast and get comfortable. If you are clouded out, don’t worry. The Perseids will be around for a few more days yet, so continue to keep watch!

And speaking of watching… If you’re out late, be sure to watch for a Jupiter/Moon conjunction. What an inspiring bit of sky scenery to watch them rise together! For lucky viewers in the Indonesia area, this is an occultation event, so please be sure to check resources for times and locations in your area.

Sunday, August 12 – Did you mark your calendar to be up before dawn to view the Perseid meteor shower? Good!

Tonight while dark skies are on our side, we’ll fly with the “Eagle” as we hop another fingerwidth north of M17 and head for one of the most famous areas of starbirth – IC 4703.

While the open cluster NGC 6611 was first discovered by Cheseaux in 1745-6, it was Charles Messier who cataloged the object as M16 and he was the first to note the nebula IC 4703 (Right Ascension: 18 : 18.9 – Declination: -13 : 47), more commonly known as the “Eagle.” At 7000 light-years distant, this roughly 7th magnitude cluster and nebula can be spotted in binoculars, but at best it is a hint. As part of the same giant cloud of gas and dust as neighboring M17, the Eagle is also a place of starbirth illuminated by these hot, high energy stellar youngsters which are only about five and a half million years old.

In small to mid-sized telescopes, the cluster of around 20 brighter stars comes alive with a faint nebulosity that tends to be brighter in three areas. For larger telescopes, low power is essential. With good conditions, it is very possible to see areas of dark obscuration and the wonderful “notch” where the Pillars of Creation lie. Immortalized by the Hubble Space telescope, you won’t see them as grand or colorful as it did, but what a thrill to know they are there!

Until next week? Clear skies!

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: July 30 – August 5, 2012

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! It’s big. It’s bright. There’s no escaping it. This week the Moon will be our major point of study, but don’t rule out some bright globular clusters and interesting stars! There’s plenty of history and science to explore, too. Whenever you’re ready, just meet me in the back yard…

Monday, July 30 – Today’s history celebrates the 2001 flyby of the Moon by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) on its way to Lagrange Point 2 to study the cosmic microwave background radiation.

Now that we’re back at Sinus Iridum on the lunar surface, we’ll hop across Mare Frigoris and northeast of the punctuation of Harpalus for a grand old crater – J. Herschel. Although it looks small because it is seen on the curve, this wonderful old walled plain named for John Herschel contains some very tiny details. Its southeastern rim forms the edge of Mare Frigoris and the small (24 km) Horrebow dots its southwest edge. The crater walls are so eroded with time that not much remains of the original structure. Look for many very small telescopic impact craters which dot J. Herschel’s uneven basin and exterior edges. Power up! If you can spot the small central crater C, you are resolving a feature only 12 kilometers wide from some 385,000 kilometers away! Formed in the Pre-Nectarian period, this walled plain could be as much as 4 billion years old…

Now, relax and enjoy the peak of the Capricornid meteor shower. Although it is hard for the casual observer to distinguish these meteors from the Delta Aquarids, no one minds. Again, face southeast and enjoy! The fall rate for this shower is around 10 to 35 per hour, but unlike the Aquarids, this stream produces those great “fireballs” known as bolides. Enjoy…

Tuesday, July 31 – Tonight on the Moon, look south of Mare Humorum is darker Paulus Epidemiarum eastward and paler Lacus Excellentiae westward. To their south you will see a complex cojoined series of craters we’ll take a closer look at – Hainzel and Mee. Hainzel was named for Tycho Brahe’s assistant and measures about 70 kilometers in length and sports several various interior wall structures. Power up and look. Hainzel’s once high walls were obliterated on the north-east by the strike that caused Hainzel C and to the north by impact which caused the formation of Hainzel A. To its basic south is eroded Mee – named for a Scottish astronomer. While Crater Mee doesn’t appear to be much more than simple scenery, it spans 172 kilometers and is far older than Hainzel. While you can spot it easily in binoculars, close telescope inspection shows how the crater is completely deformed by Hainzel. Its once high walls have collapsed to the northwest and its floor is destroyed. Can you spot small impact crater Mee E on the northern edge?

Now, let’s take the opportunity to look at two multiple star systems – Nu and Xi Scorpii.

Starting with Nu about a fingerwidth east and slightly north of bright Beta, we find a handsome duo of stars in a field of nebulosity that will challenge telescopic observers much the way that Epsilon Lyrae does. With any small telescope, the observer will easily see the widely separated A and C stars. Add just a little power and take your time… The C star has a D companion to the southwest! For larger telescopes, take a very close look at the primary star. Can you separate the B companion to the south?

Now let’s hop to Xi about four fingerwidths north of Beta.

Discovered by Sir William Herschel in 1782, this 80 light-year distant system poses a nice challenge for mid-sized scopes. The yellow-hued A and B pair share a very eccentric orbit about the same distance as Uranus is from our Sun. During the 2007 observing year they should be fairly well spaced, and the slightly fainter secondary should appear to the north. Look a good distance away for the 7th magnitude orange C component and south for yet another closely-matched double of 7th and 8th magnitude – the D and E stars.

For the larger scope, this multiple star system does display a little bit of color. Most will see the A and B components as yellow/white, the C star as slightly orange, and the D/E pair as slightly tinged with blue. Be sure to mark your observations for this is one of the finest!

Wednesday, August 1 – Today is the birthdate of Maria Mitchell. Born in 1818, Mitchell became the first woman to be elected as an astronomer to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She later rocketed to worldwide fame when she discovered a bright comet in 1847.

For larger telescopes, let’s try a challenging lunar study worthy of your observing skills. Due west of Hansteen you will find a small crater known as Sirsalis near the terminator. It will appear as a small, dark ellipse with a bright west wall along with its twin, Sirsalis B. The feature you will be looking for is the Sirsalis Rille – the longest lunar “wrinkle” presently known. Stretching northeast of Sirsalis and ex-tending 459 kilometers south to the bright rays of Byrgius, this major “crack” in the lunar surface shows several branchings – like a long dry river bed. Geologically forming in the Imbrian period, chances are the Sirsalis Rille is lunar graben. Thanks to Lunar Orbiter images, the evidence points to shifting tectonic plates as the source of this incredible feature.

Tonight, let’s continue our exploration of globular clusters. These gravitationally bound concentrations of stars contain anywhere from ten thousand to one million members and attain sizes of up to 200 light-years in diameter. At one time, these fantastic members of our galactic halo were believed to be round nebulae. Perhaps the very first to be discovered was M22 in by Abraham Ihle in 1665. This particular globular is easily seen in even small binoculars and can be located just slightly more than two degrees northeast of the “teapot’s lid,” Lambda Sagittarii.

Ranking third amongst the 151 known globular clusters in total light, M22 (Right Ascension: 18 : 36.4 – Declination: -23 : 54) is probably the nearest of these incredible systems to our Earth with an approximate distance of 9600 light-years, and it is also one of the nearest globulars to the galactic plane. Since it resides less than a degree from the ecliptic, it often shares the same eyepiece field with a planet. At magnitude 6, the class VII M22 will begin to show individual stars to even modest instruments and will burst into stunning resolution for larger aperture. About a degree west-northwest, mid-sized telescopes and larger binoculars will capture smaller 8th magnitude NGC 6642. At class V, this particular globular will show more concentration toward the core region than M22. Enjoy them both!

Thursday, August 2 – Tonight we’ll fly right by the Full Buck Moon as we continue our studies to have a look at Mu 1 and Mu 2 Scorpii about two fingerwidths north of Zeta.

Very close to the same magnitude and spectral type, the twin Mu stars are easy to separate visually and most definitely worth a look in telescopes or binoculars. They are considered an actual physical pair because they share the exact same distance and proper motion, but they are separated by less than one light-year.

Hanging out in space some 520 light-years away, western Mu 1 is a spectroscopic binary – the very first discovered to have double lines. This Beta Lyrae-type star has an orbiting companion that eclipses it around every day and a half, yet causes no significant visual drop in magnitude – even though the orbiting companion is only 10 million kilometers away from it! While that sounds like plenty of distance, when the two pass, their surfaces would nearly touch each other!

Friday, August 3 – Tonight let’s race ahead of the rising Moon as we continue our studies with one of the globulars nearest to the galactic center – M14 (Right Ascension: 17 : 37.6 – Declination: -03 : 15). Located about sixteen degrees (less than a handspan) south of Alpha Ophiuchi, this ninth magnitude, class VIII cluster can be spotted with larger binoculars, but will only be fully appreciated with the telescope.

When studied spectroscopically, globular clusters are found to be much lower in heavy element abundance than stars such as own Sun. These earlier generation stars (Population II) began their formation during the birth of our galaxy, making globular clusters the oldest of formations that we can study. In comparison, the disk stars have evolved many times, going through cycles of starbirth and supernovae, which in turn enrich the heavy element concentration in star forming clouds and may cause their collapse. Of course, as you may have guessed, M14 breaks the rules. It contains an unusually high number of variable stars – in excess of 70 – with many of them known to be the W Virginis type. In 1938, a nova appeared in M14, but it was undiscovered until 1964 when Amelia Wehlau of the University of Ontario was surveying the photographic plates taken by Helen Sawyer Hogg. The nova was revealed on eight of these plates taken on consecutive nights, and showed itself as a 16th magnitude star – and was believed to be at one time almost 5 times brighter than the cluster members. Unlike 80 years earlier with T Scorpii in M80, actual photographic evidence of the event existed. In 1991, the eyes of the Hubble were turned its way, but neither the suspect star nor traces of a nebulous remnant were discovered. Then six years later, a carbon star was discovered in M14.

To a small telescope, M14 will offer little to no resolution and will appear almost like an elliptical galaxy, lacking in any central condensation. Larger scopes will show hints of resolution, with a gradual fading towards the cluster’s slightly oblate edges. A true beauty!

Saturday, August 4 – As we explore globular clusters, we simply assume them all to be part of the Milky Way galaxy, but that might not always be the case. We know they are basically concentrated around the galactic center, but there may be four of them that actually belong to another galaxy. Tonight we’ll look at one such cluster being drawn into the Milky Way’s halo. Set your sights just about one and a half degrees west-southwest of Zeta Sagittarii for M54 (Right Ascension: 18 : 55.1 – Declination: -30 : 29).

At around magnitude 7.6, M54 is definitely bright enough to be spotted in binoculars, but its rich class III concentration is more notable in a telescope. Despite its brightness and deeply concentrated core, M54 isn’t exactly easy to resolve. At one time we thought it to be around 65,000 light-years distant, and rich in variables – with 82 known RR Lyrae types. We knew it was receding, but when the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy was discovered in 1994, it was noted that M54 was receding at almost precisely the same speed! When more accurate distances were measured, we found M54 to coincide with the SagDEG distance of 80-90,000 light-years, and M54?s distance is now calculated to be 87,400 light-years. No wonder it’s hard to resolve – it’s outside our galaxy!

As we know, most globular clusters congregate around the galactic center in the Ophiuchus/Sagittarius region. Tonight let’s explore what creates a globular cluster’s form… We’ll start with the “head of the class,” M75 (Right Ascension: 20 : 06.1 – Declination: -21 : 55).

Orbiting the galactic center for billions of years, globular clusters endured a wide variety of disturbances. Their component stars escape when accelerated by mutual encounters and the tidal force of our own Milky Way pulls them apart when they are near periapsis, that is, closest to the galactic center. Even close encounters with other masses, such as other clusters and nebulae, can affect them! At the same time, their stellar members are also evolving and this loss of gas can contribute to mass loss and deflation of these magnificent clusters. Although this happens far less quickly than in open clusters, our observable globular friends may only be the survivors of a once larger population, whose stars have been spread throughout the halo. This destruction process is never-ending, and it is believed that globular clusters will cease to exist in about 10 billion years.

Although it will be later evening when M75 appears on the Sagittarius/Capricornus border, you will find the journey of about 8 degrees southwest of Beta Capricorni worth the wait. At magnitude 8, it can be glimpsed as a small round patch in binoculars, but a telescope is needed to see its true glory. Residing around 67,500 light-years from our solar system, M75 is one of the more remote of Messier’s globular clusters. Since it is so far from the galactic center – possibly 100,000 light-years distant – M75 has survived almost intact for billions of years to remain one of the few Class I globular clusters. Although resolution is possible in very large scopes, note that this globular cluster is one of the most concentrated in the sky, with only the outlying stars resolvable to most instruments.

Sunday, August 5 – Today we celebrate the birthday of Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the Moon. Congratulations! Also on this date in 1864, Giovanni Donati made the very first spectroscopic observations of a comet (Tempel, 1864 II). His observations of three absorption lines led to what we now know as the Swan bands, from a form of the carbon radical C2.

Our study continues tonight as we move away from the galactic center in search of a remote globular cluster that can be viewed by most telescopes. As we have learned, radial velocity measurements show us the majority of globulars are involved in highly eccentric elliptical orbits, which take them far outside the plane of the Milky Way. These orbits form a sort of spherical “halo” which tends to be more concentrated toward our galactic center. Reaching out several thousands of light-years, this halo is actually larger than the disk of our own galaxy. Since globular clusters aren’t involved in our galaxy’s disk rotation, they may possess very high relative velocities. Tonight let’s head toward the constellation of Aquila and look at one such globular – NGC 7006 (Right Ascension: 21 : 01.5 – Declination: +16 : 11).

Located about half a fist’s width east of Gamma Aquilae, NGC 7006 is speeding towards us at a velocity of around 345 kilometers per second. At 150,000 light-years from the center of our galaxy, this particular globular could very well be an extra-galactic object. At magnitude 11.5, it’s not for the faint of heart, but can be spotted in scopes as small as 150mm, and requires larger aperture to look like anything more than a suggestion. Given its tremendous distance from the galactic center, it’s not hard to realize this is a class I – although it is quite faint. Even the largest of amateur scopes will find it unresolvable!

Until next week? May all your skies by clear and steady…

Lead image caption: Crater J. Herschel – Credit: Damian Peach

Hubble’s View of Messier 68: Like Diamonds in the Sky

If you’ve ever looked at Messier 68 through a telescope, you know what a delightful view it is. But the Hubble Space Telescope offers a spectacular, diamond-studded picture of this crowded stellar encampment, a spherical, star-filled region of space known as a globular cluster. This beautiful grouping of stars has been performing a type of stellar dance for perhaps 10 million years.

At a distance of approximately 33,000 light-years, the M68 globular cluster contains at least 2,000 stars that are visible, including 250 giants and 42 variables. It spans 106 light years in diameter.

Mutual gravitational attraction among a cluster’s numerous stars keeps stellar members in check, allowing globular clusters to hang together for many billions of years.

Astronomers can measure the ages of globular clusters by looking at the light of their constituent stars.

The chemical elements leave signatures in this light, and the starlight reveals that stars of globular clusters typically contain fewer heavy elements, such as carbon, oxygen and iron, than stars like the Sun.

Since successive generations of stars gradually create these elements through nuclear fusion, stars having fewer of them are relics of earlier epochs in the Universe.

Indeed, the stars in globular clusters rank among the oldest on record, dating back more than 10 billion years.

More than 150 of these objects surround our Milky Way Galaxy. On a galactic scale, globular clusters are not all that big. In Messier 68’s case, its stars span a volume of space with a diameter of little more than a hundred light-years. The disc of the Milky Way, on the other hand, extends over some 100,000 light-years or more.

Image caption: The globular cluster Messier 68. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

Source: ESA

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: June 11-17, 2012

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Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! You can breathe now… the Venus Transit is over and we’re back to the mundane astronomical excitement like great globular clusters, an early morning conjunction and two meteor showers – the Ophiuchids and June Lyrids. If you’re up to the ordinary, then follow along as we capture some great galaxies and a very challenging study! Dust off your optics and meet me in the back yard…

Monday, June 11 – Tonight we make the jump to Serpens Caput, which is in itself a challenge to recognize with the unaided eye. Using bright Spica as a guide, look about a handspan northeast for two of the brightest stars in the constellation – Alpha, and Lambda to its northeast. Using binoculars, locate a pairing with Delta to the north-northwest and Mu to the south. Now return to Alpha and hop a little less than a fistwidth to the southwest where you will encounter double star 5 Serpens and the mighty M5 (Right Ascension: 15 : 18.6 – Declination: +02 : 05).

While Gottfried Kirch and his wife Maria were watching a comet on May 5, 1702, they stumbled across a huge, bright object that they considered a “nebulous star.” Forty-two years later, it was found again by Messier who labeled it as M5 and described it as a round nebula which didn’t contain any stars. But, thank heaven for William Herschel! Some 27 years later he counted up to 200 resolvable stars in this globular cluster and reported “the middle is so compressed that it is impossible to distinguish the components.”

Even in today’s binoculars, M5 shows a grainy texture that begins resolution to even the smallest of telescopes and invites larger ones to an explosion of stellar population. Slightly elliptical in appearance, M5 is believed to be one of the oldest globular clusters with a calculated age of 13 billion years, and it contains 105 known variable stars – as well as a dwarf nova. At a distance of 24,500 light-years and stretching across 165 light-years of space, this magnificent object so dominates its territory that it would gather in any stars straying within 400 light-years of its tidal influence!

Mid-to-larger telescopes will begin such awesome resolution on M5?s many chains and its bright core region that it will be a cluster you will visit again and again over the years. No matter what size binoculars or telescope you use, this 5.6 magnitude class V globular cluster is one of the five brightest of all!

Tuesday, June 12 – As with all astronomical projects, there are sometimes difficult ones needed to complete certain study fields – such as challenging globular clusters. Tonight we’ll take a look at one such cluster needed to complete your list and you’ll find it by using M5 as a guide.

Palomar 5 is by no stretch of the imagination easy. For those using GoTo systems and large telescopes, aiming is easy… But for star hoppers a bit of instruction goes a long way. Starting at M5 drop south for the double 5 Serpens and again south and slightly west for another, fainter double. Don’t confuse it with 6 Serpens to the east. About half a degree west you’ll encounter an 8th magnitude star with 7th magnitude 4 Serpens a half degree south. Continue south another half degree where you will discover a triangle of 9th magnitude stars with a southern one at the apex. This is home to Palomar 5 (RA 15 16 05.30 Dec -00 06 41.0).

Discovered by Walter Baade in 1950, this 11.7 magnitude, Class XII globular is anything but easy. At first it was believed to be a dwarf elliptical and possibly a member of our own Local Group of galaxies due to some resolution. Later studies showed that Palomar 5 was indeed a globular cluster – but one that was being ripped apart by the tidal forces of the Milky Way.

75,000 light-years away from us and 60,000 light-years from the galactic center, Palomar 5?s members are escaping and leaving trails that span 13,000 light-years…a process which may have been happening for several billion years. Although it is of low surface brightness, even telescopes as small as 6? can distinguish just a few individual members northwest of the 9th magnitude marker star – but even telescopes as large as 31? fail to show much more than a faint sheen (under excellent conditions) with a handful of resolvable stars. Even though it may be one of the toughest you’ll ever tackle, be sure to take the time to make a quick sketch of the region to complete your studies. Good luck!

Wednesday, June 13 –Today in 1983, Pioneer 10 becomes the first manmade object to leave the solar system. What wonders would it see? Are there other galaxies out there like our own? Will there be life like ours? While we can’t see through Pioneer’s “eyes,” tonight let’s use our own as we quest for a look in the mirror…

Our object will be Herschel II.76 – also known as NGC 5970. Begin by identifying Beta and Delta Serpens Caput and look for finderscope Chi between them. Less than a degree southwest you will see a similar magnitude double star. Hop about 1/3 degree northwest and you will find your galaxy mark just a fraction southwest of a 7th magnitude star (RA 15 38 30.12 Dec -12 11 10.9).

NGC 5970 is not particularly easy for smaller scopes even near 11th magnitude because of low surface brightness, but it could be a distant twin of our own galaxy, so similar is it to the Milky Way in structure. At 105 million light-years away, it is no great surprise that we see it as faint – for its light left around the time the dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Stretching across 85,000 light-years of space, this grand spiral has been extensively studied in its nucleus region, obscuring dust regions, and stellar population. And – like us – it is also part of its own local group.

While smaller telescopes will make out a slight elongated mist, in mid-to-large aperture NGC 5970 will appear oval shaped with a bright core and evidence of a central bar. While the edges of the galaxy seem well defined, look closely at the narrower ends where material seems more wispy. While averted in this fashion, the nucleus will sometimes take on a stellar appearance – yet lose this property with direct vision. Be sure to mark your Herschel notes on this one!

Thursday, June 14 – As the new hours of the day begin and you wait on dawn, keep watch for the peak of the Ophiuchids meteor shower with the radiant near Scorpius. The fall rate is poor with only 3 per hour, but fast moving bolides are common. This meteor stream will last for 25 days.

Tonight, while we have plenty of dark skies to go around, let’s go south in Libra and have a look at the galaxy pairing NGC 5903 (Right Ascension: 15 : 18.6 – Declination: -24 : 04) and NGC 5898 (Right Ascension: 15 : 18.2 – Declination: -24 : 06). You’ll find them about three degrees northeast of Sigma, and just north of a pair of 7th magnitude stars.

While northernmost NGC 5903 seems to be nothing more than a faint elliptical with a brighter concentration towards the center and an almost identical elliptical – NGC 5898 – to the southwest, you’re probably asking yourself… Why the big deal over two small ellipticals? First off, NGC 5903 is Herschel III.139 and NGC 5898 is Herschel III.138… two more to add to your studies. And second? The Very Large Array has studied this galaxy pair in the spectral lines of neutral hydrogen. The brighter of the pair, NGC 5898, shows evidence of ionized gas which has been collected from outside its galactic realm – while NGC 5903 seems to be running streamers of material towards it. A double-galaxy, double-accretion event!

But there’s more…

Look to the southeast and you’ll double your pleasure and double your fun as you discover two double stars instead of just one! Sometimes we overlook field stars for reasons of study – but don’t do it tonight. Even mid-sized telescopes can easily reveal this twin pair of galaxies sharing “their stuff,” as well as a pair of double stars in the same low power field of view. (Psst… slim and dim MCG 043607 and quasar 1514-241 are also here!) Ain’t it grand?

Friday, June 15 – Tonight, before you hunt down the faint fuzzies and spend the rest of the night drooling on the Milky Way, let’s go globular and hunt up two very nice studies worthy of your time. Starting at Alpha Librae, head five degrees southeast for Tau and yet another degree southeast for the splendid field of NGC 5897 (RA 15 17 24.40 Dec -21 00 36.4).

This class XI globular might appear very faint to binoculars, but it definitely makes up for it in size and beauty of field. It was first viewed by William Herschel on April 25, 1784 and logged as H VI.8 – but with a less than perfect notation of position. When he reviewed it again on March 10, 1785 he logged it correctly and relabeled it as H VI.19. At a distance of a little more than 40,000 light-years away, this 8.5 magnitude globular will show some details to the larger telescope, but remain unresolved to smaller ones. As a halo globular cluster, NGC 5897 certainly shows signs of being disrupted and has a number of blue stragglers as well as four newly discovered variables of the RR Lyrae type.

Now let’s return to Alpha Librae and head about a fistwidth south across the border into Hydra and two degrees east of star 57 for NGC 5694 – also in an attractive field (RA 14 39 36.52 Dec -26 32 18.0).

Also discovered by Herschel, and cataloged as H II.196, this class VII cluster is far too faint for binoculars at magnitude 10, and barely within reach of smaller scopes. As one of the most remote globular clusters in our galaxy, few telescopes can hope to resolve this more than 113,000 light-year distant ball of stars whose brightest is magnitude 16.5 – and it also possesses no variables. Traveling at 190 kilometers per second, metal-poor NGC 5694 will not have the same fate as NGC 5897… For this is a globular cluster that is not being pulled apart by our galaxy – but escaping it!

Saturday, June 16 – No matter if you stayed up late chasing deep sky, or got up early, right now is the time to catch the peak of the June Lyrids meteor shower. Although it’s not the most outstanding of displays, no Moon will make it one of the best prospects of the year for those wishing to log their meteor observations. Look for the radiant near bright Vega – you may see up to 15 faint blue meteors per hour from this branch of the May Lyrid meteor stream.

Today in 1963, Valentina Tereshkova, aboard the Soviet Vostok 6, became the first woman ever to go into space. Her solo flight is still unique. Twenty years later, on the 18th, Sally Ride became the first American woman in orbit, aboard the Space Shuttle.

For observers of all skill levels and equipment, it’s simply time to stop and have a look at a seasonal favorite which is now nearly overhead – M13 (Right Ascension: 16 : 41.7 – Declination: +36 : 28). You’ll find this massive globular cluster quite easy to locate on the western side of the Hercules “keystone” about 1/3 the way between the northern and southern stars – Eta and Zeta.

At a little brighter than magnitude 6, this 25,100 light-year distant globular cluster can be seen unaided from a dark sky location. First noted by Edmond Halley in 1714, the “Great Hercules Cluster” was cataloged by Messier on June 1, 1764. Filled with hundreds of thousands of stars, yet only one young blue star, M13 could be as much as 14 billion years old.

Thirty-three years ago, the Great Hercules Cluster was chosen by the Arecibo Observatory as the target for the first radio message delivered into space, yet it will be a message that won’t be received for over 25 centuries. Look at it with wonder tonight… For the light that left as you are viewing it tonight did so at a time when the Earth was coming out of the Ice Age. Our early ancestors were living in caves and learning to use rudimentary tools. How evolved would our civilization be if we ever received an answer to our call?!

Sunday, June 17 – Celestial scenery alert! If you’re up before the Sun rises, be sure to check out the eastern skyline for the very close apparition of the Moon and Jupiter. The two will only be separated by about a half a degree. What a great way to wake up!

As the sky darkens tonight, let’s discover the wonderful world of low power. Start your journey by re-locating magnificent M13 and move about 3 degrees northwest. What you will find is a splendid loose open cluster of stars known as Dolidze/Dzimselejsvili (DoDz) 5 – and it looks much like a miniature of the constellation of Hercules. Just slightly more than 4 degrees to its east and just about a degree south of Eta Hercules is DoDz 6, which contains a perfect diamond pattern and an asterism of brighter stars which resembles the constellation of Sagitta.

Now we’re going to move across the constellation of Hercules towards Lyra. East of the “keystone” you will see a tight configuration of three stars – Omicron, Nu and Xi. About the same distance that separates these stars to the northeast you will find DoDz 9. Using minimal magnification, you’ll see a pretty open cluster of around two dozen mixed magnitude stars that are quite attractive. Now look again at the “keystone” and identify Lambda and Delta to its south. About midway between them and slightly to the southeast you will discover the stellar field of DoDz 8. The last is easy – all you need to do is know the beautiful red/green double, Ras Algethi (Alpha). Move about 1 degree to the northwest to discover the star-studded open cluster DoDz 7. These great open clusters are very much off the beaten path and will add a new dimension to your large binocular or low power telescoping experiences.

Until next week, keep your eyes on the skies!

M55 — Or a Swarm of Angry Bees?

M55. Image credit: ESO

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Globular clusters are my absolute favorite telescope targets. Okay, Saturn, and then globular clusters. And that’s why I’ve absolutely fallen in love with this amazing picture from the European Southern Observatory of the globular cluster M55, located in the constellation Sagittarius. In fact, it’s my new desktop wallpaper (it should be yours too, click here and download the screensize that fits your monitor)

Globular clusters contain vast numbers of stars clumped together in a tight area. In the case of M55, there are about 100,000 stars grouped up within a sphere only 100 light-years across. Astronomers know that globular clusters are old, almost as old as the Universe itself. In fact, for the longest time, astronomers calculated the age of globular clusters to be older than the estimated age of the Universe. Of course, there was an incorrect measurement there, and astronomers eventually aligned the age of globular clusters and the Universe.

M55 is thought to have formed 12.3 billion years ago, when the Universe was less than 3 billion years old. The most ancient stars in the cluster burned out a long time ago, detonating as supernovae. We’re now left with the cooler, lower mass stars, which slowly wink out one-by-one becoming white dwarfs as they proceed through the full stellar life cycle. Our own Sun is only halfway through its own lifespan, before it runs out of hydrogen fuel and becomes a white dwarf.

There are at least 160 globular clusters scattered across the Milky Way, grouped up more towards our galaxy’s core. We can only see some of the clusters because the bright core of the Milky Way obscures our view to objects on the other side. But other galaxies, with their own globular clusters show us what our own galaxy probably looks like from afar.

M55 is part of the Messier catalog; a collection of objects that looked comet-like to the eyes of Charles Messier, a French astronomer working in the 18th century. Messier recorded a list of more than 100 objects which could be confused as comets: galaxies, clusters, and nebulae.

Want to see M55 on your own? You’ll need at least a pair of 50 mm binoculars or a small telescope, some nice dark skies, and a clear view to the constellation Sagittarius. Sagittarius looks exactly like a teapot in the sky, hovering above the southern horizon in summer. The further south you go, the higher Sagittarius will be in the sky.

But you’ll never see a view or take an image as detailed as this photo. That’s because it was captured with the ESO’s 4.1-metre (13.4 foot) Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in northern Chile.

Original Source: ESO News Release

Two New Globular Star Clusters Discovered By VISTA

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Where there once was 158, there is now more… Globular clusters, that is. Thanks to ESO’s VISTA survey telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, the Via Lactea (VVV) survey has cut through the gas and dust of the Milky Way to reveal the first star cluster that is far beyond our center. But keep your eyes on the prize, because as dazzling as the cluster called UKS 1 is on the right is, the one named VVV CL001 on the left isn’t as easy to spot.

Need more? Then keep on looking, because VVV CL001 isn’t alone. The next victory for VISTA is VVV CL002, which is shown in the image below. What makes it special? It’s quite possible that VVV CL002 is the closest of its type to the center of our galaxy. While you might think discoveries of this type are commonplace, they are actually out of the ordinary. The last was documented in 2010 and it’s only through systematically studying the central parts of the Milky Way in infrared light that new ones turn up. To add even more excitement to the discovery, there is a possibility that VVV CL001 is gravitationally bound to UKS 1, making it a binary pair! However, without further study, this remains unverified.

This image from VISTA is a tiny part of the VISTA Variables in the Via Lactea (VVV) survey that is systematically studying the central parts of the Milky Way in infrared light. In the centre lies the faint newly found globular star cluster, VVV CL002. This previously unknown globular, which appears as an inconspicuous concentration of faint stars near the centre of the picture, lies close to the centre of the Milky Way. Credit: ESO/D. Minniti/VVV Team

Thanks to the hard work of the VVV team led by Dante Minniti (Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile) and Philip Lucas (Centre for Astrophysics Research, University of Hertfordshire, UK) we’re able to feast our eyes on even more. About 15,000 light years away on the other side of the Milky Way, they’ve turned up VVV CL003 – an open cluster. Due the intristic faintness of these new objects, it’s a wonder we can see them at all… In any light!

Original Story Source: ESO Press Release.

Globular Clusters on a Plane

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Globular clusters are generally some of the oldest structures in our galaxy. Many of the most famous ones formed around the same time as our galaxy, some 13 billion years ago. However, some are distinctly younger. While many classification schemes are used, one breaks globular clusters into three groups: an old halo group which includes the oldest of the clusters, those in the disk and bulge of the galaxy which tend to have higher metallicity, and a younger population of halo clusters. The latter of these provides a bit of a problem since the galaxy should have settled into a disk by the time they formed, depriving them of the necessary materials to form in the first place. But a new study suggests a solution that’s not of this galaxy.

The new study looked at the distribution of these younger clusters around our Milky Way. Of the three classifications for globular clusters discussed, the young halo clusters are scattered well beyond the range of the other populations. The young halo extends to as much as 120 kiloparsecs (400 thousand light years) while the old halo clusters tend to lie within 30 kiloparsecs (100 thousand light years). Additionally, the young clusters don’t appear to be rotating with the disk of the galaxy whereas the old halo slowly orbits in the same direction as the disk.

In looking more carefully at the positions of these satellites, the team, led by Stefan Keller at the Australian National University, found that the younger population tends to lie in a wide plane that is tilted from the rotational axis of our galaxy by a mere 8°.

This plane is strikingly similar to another recognized grouping of objects: Many of the known dwarf galaxies lie in a nearly identical plane, known as the Plane of Satellites (PoS). This finding suggests that this population of globular clusters is a relic of cannibalized galaxies. Even more interesting is that, while these objects are younger than the distinctly “old” population, there is still a large variation in their ages. This implies that this plane wasn’t created by the accretion of one, or even a few minor galaxies, but a consistent feeding of small galaxies onto the Milky Way for much of the history of the universe, and all from the same direction. Studies of the distribution of satellites around our nearest major neighbor, M31, the Andromeda galaxy, has turned up a similar preferred plane, tilted some 59° from its disk.

One explanation for this is that this is a preferred direction that traces invisible filaments of dark matter. While dark matter distributions are difficult to predict, models haven’t accounted for such strong filamentary structure on such small scales. Rather, in the neighborhood of our galaxy, the overall distribution is described as an oblate spheroid. One of the reasons astronomers believe our own dark matter halo is so nicely shaped is the way it is affecting the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy which is slowly being accreted onto our own. If the dark matter were more wispy, it should be stretched out in different manners.

Another possibility the authors consider is that the objects were created in a preferred plane “from the break up of a large progenitor at early times”. In other words, the filament could be a fossil of larger structure before our galaxy formed along which these dwarf galaxies formed and from which these galaxies could have been slowly accreting over the history of the galaxy.

Globular Clusters and the Age-Metallicity Relation

Globular Cluster

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Globular Clusters have a story to tell. These dense clumps of thousands of stars are relics of the early history of our galaxy, preserving information of the galaxy’s properties from their formation. Knowing this, astronomers have used globular clusters for nearly 30 years to probe how our galaxy has evolved. New observations from Hubble, add surprising new insight to this picture.

One of the advantages to studying clusters, is that the large number of stars allows astronomers to accurately determine some properties of the constituent stars far better than they could if the stars were isolated. In particular, since clusters all form in a short span of time, all stars will have the same age. More massive stars will die off first, peeling away from the main sequence before their lower mass brothers. How far this point, where stars leave the main sequence, has progressed is indicative of the age of the cluster. Since globular clusters have such a rich population of stars, their H-R diagrams are well detailed and the turn-off becomes readily apparent.

Using ages found in this manner, astronomers can use these clusters to get a snapshot of what the conditions of the galaxy were like when it formed. In particular, astronomers have studied the amount of elements heavier than helium, called “metals”, as the galaxy has aged. One of the first findings using globular clusters to probe this age-metallicity relationship was that there was a notable difference in the way the inner portion and the outer portion of the galaxy has evolved. Globular clusters revealed that the inner 15 kpc evolved heavier elements faster than the outer portions. Such findings allow for astronomers to test models of galactic formation and evolution and have helped to support models involving halos of dark matter.

While these results have been confirmed by numerous follow-up studies, the sampling of globular clusters is still somewhat skewed. Many of the globular clusters studied were part of the Galactic Globular Cluster Treasury project conducted using the Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (HST/ACS). In order to minimize the time spent using the much demanded telescope, the team was only able to target relatively nearby globular clusters. As such, the most distant cluster they could observe was NGC 4147 which is ~21 kpc from the galactic center. Other studies have made use of Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 and pushed the radius back to over 50 kpc from the galactic center. However, currently only 6 globular clusters with distances over 50 kpc have been included in this larger study. Interestingly, there has been a notable absence of clusters between 15 and 50 kpc, leaving a gap in the fuller knowledge.

This gap is the target of a recent study by a team of astronomers led by Aaron Dotter from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland. In the new study, the team examines 6 globular clusters. Three of them (IC 4499, NGC 6426, and Ruprecht 106) are towards the inner edge of this range, lying between 15 and 20 kpc from the galactic center while the other three (NGC 7006, Palomar 15, and Pyxis) each lie around 40 kpc.

Again making use of the HST/ACS, the team found that all of the clusters were younger than globular clusters from the inner portions of the galaxy with similar metalicities. But three of the clusters, IC 4499, Ruprecht 106, and Pyxis were significantly younger to the tune of 1-2 billion years younger again supporting the picture that inner clusters had evolved faster. Additionally, this finding of a sharp difference helps to support the picture that the outer clusters underwent a different evolutionary process, aside from the rapid enrichment in the inner halo. One suggestion is that many of the outer halo clusters were originally formed in dwarf galaxies and later accreted into the Milky Way due to the timescales on which clusters in such smaller galaxies are thought to evolve.

New Look at an Ancient Swarm of Stars

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Globular clusters form during the earliest stages in a galaxy’s development, so clusters like this one, M 107, or NGC 6171 are some of the oldest objects in the Universe. Typically, globular clusters formed about 10 billion years ago, and astronomers say that studying these objects can provide significant insights into how galaxies, and their component stars evolve. While M 107 has been observed many times, this new look from ESO shows a stunning view of this swarm of stars.

Located about 21,000 light years away, M107 is not visible to the naked eye. But, with an apparent magnitude of about eight, it can easily be observed from a dark site with binoculars or a small telescope.

The globular cluster is about 13 arcminutes across and is found in the constellation of Ophiuchus, north of the pincers of Scorpius. Roughly half of the Milky Way’s known globular clusters are actually found in the constellations of Sagittarius, Scorpius and Ophiuchus, in the general direction of the centre of the Milky Way. This is because they are all in elongated orbits around the central region and are on average most likely to be seen in this direction.

This image is composed from exposures taken through the blue, green and near-infrared filters by the Wide Field Camera (WFI) on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.

Source: ESO