Messier 79 – the NGC 1904 Globular Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the globular cluster known as Messier 79!

During the 18th century, famed French astronomer Charles Messier noticed the presence of several “nebulous objects”  while surveying the night sky. Originally mistaking these objects for comets, he began to catalog them so that others would not make the same mistake. Today, the resulting list (known as the Messier Catalog) includes over 100 objects and is one of the most influential catalogs of Deep Space Objects.

One of these objects is Messier 79 (aka. NGC 1904), a globular cluster in the constellation Lepus. Located about 42,000 light years from Earth, and 60,000 light years from the Galactic Center, this cluster is believed to not be native to the Milky Way itself. One possibility is that it arrived in our galaxy as part of the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy, which is currently the closest galaxy to our own (though this remains the subject of debate).

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Put Yourself in the Way of Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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