The Aquarius Constellation

Welcome back to Constellation Friday! Today, we will be dealing with one of the best-known constellations, that “watery” asterism and section of the sky known as Aquarius. Cue the soundtrack from Hair!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of all the-then known constellations. This work (known as the Almagest) would remain the definitive guide to astronomy and astrology for over a thousand years. Among the 48 constellations listed in this book was Aquarius, a constellation of the zodiac that stretches from the celestial equator to the southern hemisphere.

Also known as the “Water Carrier”, Aquarius is bordered by Pegasus, Equuleus and Delphinus at the north, Aquila to the west, Capricornus to the south-west, Piscis Austrinus and Sculptor to the south, Cetus to the east and Pisces to the north-east. Today, it is one of the 88 constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), and is perhaps the most referenced and recognized of all the constellation.

Continue reading “The Aquarius Constellation”

This Picture Symbolizes The Changing Mission Of One Plucky Spacecraft

Besides being a darn pretty picture of the Helix nebula, this snapshot is a bit of symbolism for NASA. The spacecraft that nabbed this view is called the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. If you look very carefully — you may have to click on the picture for a closer view — you can see little dots showing the paths of asteroids in the picture. (The streaks are cosmic rays and satellites.)

WISE has an interesting history. It began as a telescope seeking secrets of the universe in infrared light, but ran out of coolant in 2010 and was repurposed for asteroid searching under the NEOWISE mission. It wrapped up its mission, was put into hibernation in February 2011, then reactivated this August to look for asteroids again for at least the next three years. You can see some pictures and data WISE collected during its mission below the jump.

It’s a nice way, NASA said, to celebrate the fourth anniversary of WISE’s launch. “WISE is the spacecraft that keeps on giving,” said Ned Wright of UCLA, who was the principal investigator of WISE before it transitioned into NEOWISE.

New results from NASA's NEOWISE survey find that more potentially hazardous asteroids, or PHAs, are closely aligned with the plane of our solar system than previous models suggested. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Results from NASA’s NEOWISE survey find that more potentially hazardous asteroids, or PHAs, are closely aligned with the plane of our solar system than previous models suggested. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This enormous section of the Milky Way galaxy is a mosaic of images from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. The constellations Cassiopeia and Cepheus are featured in this 1,000-square degree expanse. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
This enormous section of the Milky Way galaxy is a mosaic of images from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. The constellations Cassiopeia and Cepheus are featured in this 1,000-square degree expanse. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
This oddly colorful nebula is the supernova remnant IC 443 as seen by WISE. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA
This oddly colorful nebula is the supernova remnant IC 443 as seen by WISE. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

Eye-Like Helix Nebula Turns Blue in New Image

A combined image of the Helix Nebula from the Spitzer Space Telescope,the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE).. Credit: NASA/Caltech

The Helix Nebula has been called the “Eye of God,” or the “Eye of Sauron,” and there’s no denying this object appears to be a cosmic eye looking down on us all. And this new image – a combined view from Spitzer and GALEX — gives a blue tint to the eye that we’ve seen previously in gold, green and turquoise hues from other telescopes. But really, this eye is just a dying star. And it is not going down without a fight. The Helix Nebula continues to glow from the intense ultraviolet radiation being pumped out by the hot stellar core from the white dwarf star, which, by the way, is just a tiny white pinprick right at the center of the nebula.

The Helix nebula, or NGC 7293, lies 650 light-years away in the constellation of Aquarius. Planetary nebulae are the remains of Sun-like stars, and so one day – in about five billion years – our own Sun may look something like this — from a distance. Earth will be toast.

The team from the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) that cooperated to create this image describe what is going on:

When the hydrogen fuel for the fusion reaction runs out, the star turns to helium for a fuel source, burning it into an even heavier mix of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. Eventually, the helium will also be exhausted, and the star dies, puffing off its outer gaseous layers and leaving behind the tiny, hot, dense core, called a white dwarf. The white dwarf is about the size of Earth, but has a mass very close to that of the original star; in fact, a teaspoon of a white dwarf would weigh as much as a few elephants!

The intense ultraviolet radiation from the white dwarf heats up the expelled layers of gas, which shine brightly in the infrared. GALEX has picked out the ultraviolet light pouring out of this system, shown throughout the nebula in blue, while Spitzer has snagged the detailed infrared signature of the dust and gas in red, yellow and green. Where red Spitzer and blue GALEX data combine in the middle, the nebula appears pink. A portion of the extended field beyond the nebula, which was not observed by Spitzer, is from NASA’s all-sky Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE).

Source: JPL

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast: September 10-16, 2012

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! With very little Moon to contend with this week, it will be a great time to take on some challenging studies like the Helix Nebula, Saturn Nebula, Stephen’s Quintet and more. It’s time to get out your big telescope and head for some dark skies… Because this week isn’t for the beginner! Whenever you’re ready, I’ll see you out back…

Monday, September 10 – Today is the birthday of James E. Keeler. Born in 1857, the American Keeler was a pioneer in the field of spectroscopy and astrophysics. In 1895, Keeler proved that different areas in Saturn’s rings rotate at different velocities. This clearly showed that Saturn’s rings were not solid, but were instead a collection of smaller particles in independent orbits.

Now, let’s head on to Capricornus and drop about four finger-widths south of its northeastern most star – Delta – and have a look at M30 (Right Ascension: 21 : 40.4 – Declination: -23 : 11). Discovered in 1764 by Charles Messier, binocular observers will spot this small, but attractive, globular cluster easily in the same field with star 41. For telescopic observers, you will find a dense core region and many chains of resolvable stars in this 40,000 light year distant object. Power up!

Let’s get some more practice in Capricornus, and take on a more challenging target with confidence. Locate the centermost bright star in the northern half of the constellation – Theta – because we’re headed for the “Saturn Nebula”.

Three finger-widths north of Theta you will see dimmer Nu, and only one finger-width west is NGC 7009 (Right Ascension: 21 : 04.2 – Declination: -11 : 22). Nicknamed the “Saturn Nebula”, this wonderful blue planetary is around 8th magnitude and achievable in small scopes and large binoculars. Even at moderate magnification, you will see the elliptical shape which gave rise to its moniker. With larger scopes, those “ring like” projections become even clearer, making this challenging object well worth the hunt. You can do it!

Tuesday, September 11 –Today celebrates the birthday of Sir James Jeans. Born in 1877, English-born Jeans was an astronomical theoretician. During the beginning of the 20th century, Jeans worked out the fundamentals of the process of gravitational collapse. This was an important contribution to the understanding of the formation of solar systems, stars, and galaxies.

So, are we ready to try for the “Helix”?

Located in a sparsely populated area of the sky, this intriguing target is about a fist width due northwest of bright Formalhaut and about a fingerwidth west of Upsilon Aquarii. While the NGC 7293 (Right Ascension: 22 : 29.6 – Declination: -20 : 48) is also a planetary nebula, its entirely different than most… It’s a very large and more faded edition of the M57! On a clear, dark night it can be spotted with binoculars since it spans almost one quarter a degree of sky. Using a telescope, stay at lowest power and widest field, because it is so large. It you have an OIII filter, this faded “ring” becomes a braided treat!

Wednesday, September 12 – Today in 1959, the USSR’s Luna 2 scored a mark as it became the first manmade object to hit the moon. The successful mission landed in the Paulus Putredinus area. Today also celebrates the 1966 Gemini 11 launch.

Tonight let’s take the time to hunt down an often overlooked globular cluster – M56. Located roughly midway between Beta Cygni and Gamma Lyrae (RA 19 15 35.50 Dec +30 11 04.2), this class X globular was discovered by Charles Messier in 1779 on the same night he discovered a comet, and was later resolved by Herschel. At magnitude 8 and small in size, it’s a tough call for a beginner with binoculars, but is a very fine telescopic object. With a general distance of 33,000 light-years, this globular resolves well with larger scopes, but doesn’t show as much more than a faint, round area with small aperture. However, the beauty of the chains of stars in the field makes it quite worth the visit!

While you’re there, look carefully: M56 is one of the very few objects for which the photometry of its variable stars was studied strictly with amateur telescopes. While one bright variable star had been known previously to exist, up to a dozen more have recently been discovered. Of those, six had their variability periods determined using CCD photography and telescopes just like yours!

Thursday, September 13 – Today in 1922, the highest air temperature ever recorded at the surface of the Earth occurred. The measurement was taken in Libya and burned in at a blistering 136F (58C), but did you know that the temperatures in the sunlight on the Moon double that? If you thought the surface of the Moon was a bit too warm for comfort, then know surface temperatures on the closest planet to the Sun can reach up to 800F (427C) at the equator during the day! As odd as it may sound, even that close to the Sun – Mercury could very well have ice deposits hidden below the surface at its poles.

Tonight we’ll move on to Aquila and look at the hot central star of an interesting planetary nebula – NGC 6804 (Right Ascension: 19 : 31.6 – Declination: +09 : 13). You’ll find it almost 4 degrees due west of Altair. Discovered by Herschel and classed as open cluster H VI.38, it wasn’t until Pease took a closer look that its planetary nature was discovered. Interacting with clouds of interstellar dust and gases, NGC 6804 is a planetary in decline, with its outer shell around magnitude 12 and the central star at about magnitude 13. While only larger telescopes will get a glimpse of the central, it’s one of the hottest objects in space – with temperatures around 30,000K!

If that’s not “hot” enough for you, then take a look straight overhead at brilliant star Vega. It is a “Sirian type” star and with a surface temperature of about 9200 degrees Kelvin, it’s twice as hot as our own Sun. At around 27 light years away, our entire solar system is moving towards Vega at a speed of 12 miles per second, but don’t worry… It will take us another 450,000 years to get there. If we were to arrive tonight, we’d find that Vega is around 3 times larger than Sol and that it also has a 10th magnitude companion that can often be resolved in mid-sized scopes. It’s one of the first stars to ever be photographed. Back in 1850, that simple star – Vega – took and exposure time of 100 seconds through a 15? scope. How times have changed!

Friday, September 14 – Tonight’s destination is not an easy one, but if you have a 6? or larger scope, you’ll fall in love a first sight! Let’s head for Eta Pegasi and slightly more than 4 degrees north/northeast for NGC 7331 (Right Ascension: 22 : 37.1 – Declination: +34 : 25).

This beautiful, 10th magnitude, tilted spiral galaxy is very much how our own Milky Way would appear if we could travel 50 million light years away and look back. Very similar in both structure to ourselves and the “Great Andromeda”, this particular galaxy gains more and more interest as scope size increases – yet it can be spotted with larger binoculars. At around 8? in aperture, a bright core appears and the beginnings of wispy arms. In the 10? to 12? range, spiral patterns begin to emerge and with good seeing conditions, you can see “patchiness” in structure as nebulous areas are revealed and the western half is deeply outlined with a dark dustlane. But hang on… Because the best is yet to come!

Saturday, September 15 – In 1991 the Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) was launched from Space Shuttle Discovery. The successful mission lasted well beyond its life expectancy – sending back critical information about our ever-changing environment. After 14 years and 78,000 orbits, UARS remains a scientific triumph.

If you’re up early, why not check out Mars? While the red planet is visible, it’s also rather small at the moment, with an apparent diameter of less than .5”. Can you still spot some surface details?

Tonight return to the NGC 7331 with all the aperture you have. What we are about to look at is truly a challenge and requires dark skies, optimal position and excellent conditions. Now breathe the scope about one half a degree south/southwest and behold one of the most famous galaxy clusters in the night.
In 1877, French astronomer – Edouard Stephan was using the first telescope designed with a reflection coated mirror when he discovered something a bit more with the NGC 7331. He found a group of nearby galaxies! This faint gathering of five is better known as “Stephan’s Quintet” and its members are no further apart than our own Milky Way galaxy.

Visually in a large scope, these members are all rather faint, but their proximity is what makes them such a curiosity. The Quintet is made up of five galaxies numbered NGC 7317, 7318, 7318A, 7318B, 7319 and the largest is 7320 (Right Ascension: 22 : 36.1 – Declination: +33 : 57). Even with a 12.5? telescope, this author has never seen them as much more than tiny, barely there objects that look like ghosts of rice grains on a dinner plate. So why bother?

What our backyard equipment can never reveal is what else exists within this area – more than 100 star clusters and several dwarf galaxies. Some 100 million years ago, the galaxies collided and left long streamers of their materials which created star forming regions of their own, and this tidal pull keeps them connected. The stars within the galaxies themselves are nearly a billion years old, but between them lay much younger ones. Although we cannot see them, you can make out the soft sheen of the galactic nucleii of our interacting group.

Enjoy their faint mystery!

Sunday, September 16 – It’s New Moon! For those of you who have waited on the weekend to enjoy dark skies, then let’s add another awesome galaxy to the collection. Tonight set your sights towards Alpha Pegasi and drop due south less than 5 degrees to pick up NGC 7479 (Right Ascension: 23 : 04.9 – Declination: +12 : 19).

Discovered by William Herschel in 1784. this tantalizing 11 magnitude barred spiral galaxy has had a supernova in its nucleus as recently as 1990. While the 16th magnitude event is no longer visible, smaller telescopes will easily pick out bright core and elongation of the central bar. Larger aperture will find this one a real treat as the spiral arms curl both over and under the central structure, resembling a ballet dancer “en pointe”. Congratulations! You’ve just observed Caldwell 44.

Until next week? Wishing you clear skies!

Written by Tammy Plotner. NGC 7009 Image Credit: NOAO/AURA/NSF

A New Look at the Helix Nebula — a Giant “Eye” in Space


Who is looking at who here? A brand new image of the Helix Nebula (breathlessly called the “Eye of God” in viral email messages) was taken by ESO’s VISTA telescope, at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. In infrared light — compared previous images of the Helix Nebula taken in visible light — the “eye” appears to have put on a colored contact lens, changing the color from blue to brown. What infrared really reveals are strands of cold gases within the nebula, as well as highlighting a rich background of stars and galaxies.

The Helix Nebula is a planetary nebula, and is located in the constellation Aquarius, about 700 light-years away from Earth. This strange object formed when a star like the Sun was in the final stages of its life. In fact, our own Sun might look like this one day, several billion years from now.

ESO’s VISTA telescope, at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, has captured a striking new image of the Helix Nebula. Credit: ESO/VISTA/J. Emerson.

The Helix Nebula is a huge cavern of glowing gases. The main ring of the Helix is about two light-years across, roughly half the distance between the Sun and the nearest star. However, material from the nebula spreads out from the star to at least four light-years. This is particularly clear in this infrared view since red molecular gas can be seen across much of the image.

At its center is a dying star which has ejected masses of dust and gas to form tentacle-like filaments stretching toward an outer rim composed of the same material. Unable to hold onto its outer layers, the hot central star is slowly shedding shells of gas that became the nebula. It is evolving to become a white dwarf star and appears as the tiny blue dot seen at the center of the image.

The VISTA telescope also reveals fine structure in the nebula’s rings. The infrared light picks out how the cooler, molecular gas is arranged. The material clumps into filaments that radiate out from the center and the whole view resembles a celestial firework display – or a giant eye.

Source: ESO

The Eye of God

There was an email going around a few years ago talking about “the Eye of God”. This photo was actually an image of the Helix Nebula taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Eye of God nebula is a bright planetary nebula located about 700 light-years away in the constellation Aquarius; it’s also known as NGC 7293. In fact, the Helix Nebula is probably the closest planetary nebula we can see in the sky, and it shows the future that stars like our Sun go through when they run out of fuel and puff out their outer layers.

It’s thought that the Helix Nebula is actually cylindrical shaped. From our perspective, we’re looking down the cylinder to see the central star. Astronomers estimate that the Helix Nebula is about 10,600 years old, based on the rate of expansion of the nebula.

With the power of the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers were able to see knots of material in the nebula. They’ve now discovered more than 20,000 of these cometary knots in the nebula. These knots have cometary tails, and it’s been discovered that they can collide with one another.

Here’s the email you might get:

Subject: Fw: Eye of God
This is a picture taken by NASA with the Hubble telescope. They are referring to it as the “Eye of God”. I thought it was beautiful and worth sharing.

Some emails even say that this is a rare event that only happens once every 3,000 years. The reality is that this is just a beautiful photograph taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. There are other images that have been taken by other telescopes and they look beautiful as well.

We’ve written several articles about the Helix Nebula for Universe Today. Here’s an article about a new view into the Helix Nebula, and here’s an article about comets colliding inside the Helix Nebula.

If you’d like more info on the Helix Nebula, here’s a nice picture from the La Silla Observatory at Astronomy Picture of the Day.

We’ve also recorded an entire episode of Astronomy Cast just about nebulae. Listen here, Episode 111: Nebulae.

Helix Nebula

The Helix Nebula is one of the most familiar nebulae in astronomy, and it’s been nicknamed the “Eye of God”. Its official designation is NGC 7293, the Helix Nebula is located inside the constellation of Aquarius. The Helix Nebula is one of the closest examples of a planetary nebula. Astronomers have estimated its distance to only be 700 light-years away.

The central star of the Helix Nebula was once a star very similar to our own Sun. As the star neared the end of its life, it expanded into a red giant and puffed away its outer layers. The central star is destined to become a white dwarf star, as it slowly cools down. It’s no longer actively fusing hydrogen, and only shines with the remaining heat from when it was once a star.

The Helix Nebula that we see today is actually just a momentary phase in the death of the star. The inner layers of gas and dust expanding away from the central star were probably released about 6,500 years ago, with the outer layer released about 12,000 years ago. We can see them because they’re illuminated by the central star. But eventually they’ll get far enough away that they’re no longer bright enough to see. From that point on we’ll just see the central white dwarf star.

Because the Helix Nebula is so close, images from the Hubble Space Telescope revealed knots of material in the expanding shells of gas and dust. There are more than 20,000 of these knots in the nebula, and they have cometlike tails stretching away from the central star.

We’ve written many articles about the Eye of God nebula for Universe Today. Here’s an article about a new view into the Helix Nebula, and here’s an article about comets colliding inside the Helix Nebula.

Here’s a nice photograph of the Helix Nebula taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about nebulae. Listen here, Episode 111: Nebulae.