Messier 67 – the King Cobra Open Star Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the big snake – the King Cobra Cluster (aka. Messier 67).

In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier kept noting the presence of fixed, diffuse objects he initially mistook for comets. In time, he would come to compile a list of approximately 100 of these objects, hoping to prevent other astronomers from making the same mistake. This list – known as the Messier Catalog – would go on to become one of the most influential catalogs of Deep Sky Objects.

One of these objects is the open star cluster known as Messier 67, aka. the King Cobra Cluster. Located in the Cancer Constellation, and with age estimates ranging from 3.2 and 5 billion years, this cluster is one of the oldest clusters known. And at a distance of roughly 2610 and 2930 (800 – 900 pc) from Earth, it is the closest of any of the older open star clusters.

Description:

At 3.2 billion years, Messier 67 is billed as one of the oldest star clusters known and the oldest of all the Messier clusters. Containing perhaps 500 stars, and about 100 stars similar to our own Sun, this cloud contains no main sequence stars bluer than spectral type F, since the brighter stars of that age have already left the main sequence – no matter how it may appear! Among its 150 white dwarf stars, there’s only about 30 blue stragglers…

Messier 67 (aka. the King Cobra Cluster), one of the oldest known open star clusters. . Credit & Copyright: Processing – Noel Carboni, Imaging – Greg Parker/NASA

As Xiao-Bin Zhan (et al) indicated in a 2005 study:

“We present results of a time-series CCD photometry of two blue stragglers in the open cluster M67 that are also oscillating variables, S1280 and S1284. The observations obtained on 11 nights confirmed the Delta Scuti-like variability of the two stars. Four and five main pulsating frequencies are detected for S1280 and S1284, respectively, through a power spectral analysis. A preliminary mode identification indicates that the two stars are both in radial oscillation. Based on the nature of oscillation, the physical parameters of the two stars are determined, and their evolutionary status discussed.”

As you look at this old open cluster, realize that it’s a great study field for stellar evolution. As Jarrod R. Hurley (et al) explained in their 2005 study:

“The old open cluster M67 is an ideal testbed for current cluster evolution models because of its dynamically evolved structure and rich stellar populations that show clear signs of interaction between stellar, binary and cluster evolution. Here we present the first truly direct N-body model for M67, evolved from zero age to 4 Gyr taking full account of cluster dynamics as well as stellar and binary evolution. Our preferred model starts with 12000 single stars and 12000 binaries placed in a Galactic tidal field at 8.0 kpc from the Galactic Centre. Our choices for the initial conditions and for the primordial binary population are explained in detail. At 4 Gyr, the age of M67, the total mass has reduced by 90% as a result of mass loss and stellar escapes. The mass and half-mass radius of luminous stars in the cluster are a good match to observations although the model is more centrally concentrated than observations indicate. The stellar mass and luminosity functions are significantly flattened by preferential escape of low-mass stars. We find that M67 is dynamically old enough that information about the initial mass function is lost, both from the current luminosity function and from the current mass fraction in white dwarfs. The model contains 20 blue stragglers at 4 Gyr which is slightly less than the 28 observed in M67. Nine are in binaries. The blue stragglers were formed by a variety of means and we find formation paths for the whole variety observed in M67. Both the primordial binary population and the dynamical cluster environment play an essential role in shaping the population. A substantial population of short-period primordial binaries (with periods less than a few days) is needed to explain the observed number of blue stragglers in M67.”

History of Observation:

According to Johann Elert Bode, M67 was originally discovered by Johann Gottfried Koehler before the year 1779, but his telescope was so primitive that little more than the light could be made out. According to historical records his listed it as his object nineteen, describing it as, “A rather conspicuous nebula in elongated figure, near Alpha of Cancer.”

Charles Messier independently rediscovered M67, resolved it into stars, and cataloged it on April 6, 1780: “Cluster of small stars with nebulosity, below the southern claw of Cancer.” It was observed again by Caroline Herschel, and many times by Sir William, ending up getting its General Catalog designation for John Herschel. Of all the folks in history who described it… Dreyer said it best when he said it was a “Remarkable; cluster; very bright; very large; extremely rich.”

Locating Messier 67:

Finding M67 is easy in both binoculars and a telescope once you’ve identified the upside down Y shape of the constellation of Cancer. Simply take aim at the easternmost star in the Y, and you’ll find this delightful open cluster about a finger width to the west.

The location Messier 67 in the Cancer constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

In binoculars and very small telescopes you’ll spy a rich concentration that will appear almost galaxy-like, while larger apertures will fully resolve this cloud of stellar points. M67 is well suited to urban skies and moderate moonlit conditions.

Enjoy the magnificent M67 yourself!

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

Object Name: Messier 67
Alternative Designations: M67, NGC 2682
Object Type: Open Galactic Star Cluster
Constellation: Cancer
Right Ascension: 08 : 50.4 (h:m)
Declination: +11 : 49 (deg:m)
Distance: 2.7 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 6.1 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 30.0 (arc min)

We have written many interesting articles about Messier Objects here at Universe Today. Here’s Tammy Plotner’s Introduction to the Messier ObjectsM1 – The Crab Nebula, and David Dickison’s articles on the 2013 and 2014 Messier Marathons.

Be to sure to check out our complete Messier Catalog. And for more information, check out the SEDS Messier Database.

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The Cancer Constellation

Welcome back to Constellation Friday! Today, we will be dealing with one of the best-known constellations, that crabby asterism known as “Cancer”!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of the then-known 48 constellations. His treatise, known as the Almagest, would be used by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come. One of these constellations is Cancer, which is represented by “the Crab”.

As one of the twelve constellations of the zodiac, this medium-sized constellation is located on the ecliptic plane, where it is bordered by Gemini to the west, Lynx to the north, Leo Minor to the northeast, Leo to the east, Hydra to the south, and Canis Minor to the southwest. Today, it is one of the 88 constellation that are recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) today.

Name and Meaning:

In mythology, Cancer was part of the Twelve Labors of Hercules. While Hercules was busy fighting the multi-headed monster (Hydra), the goddess Hera – who did not like Hercules – sent the Crab to distract him. Cancer grabbed onto the hero’s toe with its claws, but was crushed by Hercule’s mighty foot. Hera, grateful for the little crustacean’s heroic sacrifice, gave it a place in the sky. Given that the crab did not win, the gods didn’t give it any bright stars.

The planets, including Earth, orbit within a relatively flat plane. As we watch them cycle through their orbits, two or more occasionally bunch close together in a conjunction. We see them projected against the
Illustration of the ecliptic of the Solar System, showing the position of the twelve constellations of the zodiac. Credit: Bob King

History of Observation:

The first recorded examples of the Cancer constellation come from the 2nd millennium BCE, where it was known to Akkadian astronomers as the “Sun of the South”. This was most likely due to its position at the summer solstice during ancient antiquity. By classical antiquity, Cancer came to be called the “Gate of Men”, based on the beleif that it was the portal through which souls came and went from the heavens.

Given its relative faintness in the night sky, Cancer was often described as the “Dark Sign” throughout history. For instance, the medieval Italian poet Dante alluded to its faintness and position of Cancer in heavens as follows (in the Paradiso section of The Divine Comedy):

“Then a light among them brightened,
So that, if Cancer one such crystal had,
Winter would have a month of one sole day.”

Cancer’s stature as a constellation of the Zodiac has remained steadfast over the millennia, thought its position has changed. Over two thousand years ago, the sun shone in front of the constellation during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer solstice. Today, the Sun resides in front of the constellation Taurus when the summer solstice sun reaches its northernmost point.

ancer’s stature as a constellation of the Zodiac has remained steadfast over the millennia. Over two thousand years ago, the sun shone in front of the constellation Cancer during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer solstice. That’s not the case today, however. Today, the sun resides in front of the constellation Taurus when the summer solstice sun reaches its northernmost point for the year on or near June 21. Nonetheless, Cancer still seems to symbolize the height and glory of the summer sun. To this day, we say the sun shines over the Tropic of Cancer – not the “tropic of Taurus” – on the June solstice. That’s in spite of the fact that the sun in our time passes in front of the constellation Cancer from about July 21 until August 10. Dates of sun’s entry into each constellation of the Zodiac Nowadays, the sun doesn’t enter the constellation Cancer until about a month after the Northern Hemisphere’s summer solstice. Credit: US Library of Congress
Cancer as depicted in Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c.1825. Credit: US Library of Congress

Notable Features:

Though comparatively faint, the Cancer constellation contains several notable stars. For starters, there is Beta Cancri, which is also known by the Arabic name of Al Tarf (“the eye” or “the glance”). Beta Cancri is the brightest star in Cancer and is about 660 times brighter than our Sun.

This K-class orange giant star is about 290 light years away from Earth, and is part of a binary system that includes a 14th magnitude star. This second star is so far away – about 65 times the distance of Pluto from the Sun – that their orbital period is at least 76,000 years!

Then there is Delta Cancri – an orange giant star approximately 180 light-years away. This is the second-brightest star in the Cancer constellation, and also where the famous Beehive Cluster (Messier 44) can be found (see below). It is also known by its Latin name of Asellus Australis, which means “southern donkey colt” (or “southern ass” if you’re feeling comedic!).

A bit further north is Gamma Cancri, an A-type white subgiant located 158 light years from Earth. Its Latin name is Asellus Borealis, which means (you guessed it!) “northern ass”. Both this star and Delta Cancri are significant because of their mythological connection and proximity to Messier 44.

Next up is Alpha Cancri, the fourth brightest star in the constellation, which is also known as Acubens. The star also goes by the names of Al Zubanah or Sertans, which are derived from the Arabic az-zub?nah (which means “claws”), while Sertan is derived from sara??n, which means “the crab.” Located approximately 174 light years from Earth, Alpha Cancris is actually a multiple star system – Alpha Cancri A and B (a white A-type dwarf and an 11th magnitude star, respectively.

Messier 44, otherwise known as the Beehive Cluster. Credit & Copyright: Bob Franke
Messier 44, otherwise known as the Beehive Cluster. Credit & Copyright: Bob Franke

Cancer is also home to many Deep Sky Objects. For instance, there is the aforementioned Beehive Cluster (Messier 44). This open cluster is the nearest of its type relative to our Solar System, and contains a larger star population than most other nearby clusters. Under dark skies the Beehive Cluster looks like a nebulous object to the unaided eye; thus it has been known since ancient times.

The classical astronomer Ptolemy called it “the nebulous mass in the heart of Cancer,” and it was among the first objects that Galileo studied with his telescope. The cluster’s age and proper motion coincide with those of the Hyades stellar association, suggesting that both share a similar origin. Both clusters also contain red giants and white dwarfs, which represent later stages of stellar evolution, along with main sequence stars of spectral classes A, F, G, K, and M.

So far, eleven white dwarfs have been identified, representing the final evolutionary phase of the cluster’s most massive stars, which originally belonged to spectral type B. Brown dwarfs, however, are extremely rare in this cluster, probably because they have been lost by tidal stripping from the halo.

Then there’s M67, which can be viewed due west of Alpha Cancri. M67 is not the oldest known galactic cluster, but there are very few in the Milky Way known to be older. M67 is an important laboratory for studying stellar evolution, since all its stars are at the same distance and age, except for approximately 30 anomalous blue stragglers, whose origins are not fully understood.

The Messier 67 star cluster, one of the oldest known open star clusters. located in the constellation Cancer. Credit & Copyright: Noel Carboni/Greg Parker
The Messier 67 star cluster, one of the oldest known open star clusters. located in the constellation Cancer. Credit & Copyright: Noel Carboni/Greg Parker

M67 has more than 100 stars similar to the Sun and many red giants, though the total star count has been estimated at over 500. The cluster contains no main sequence stars bluer than spectral type F, since the brighter stars of that age have already left the main sequence. In fact, when the stars of the cluster are plotted on the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, there is a distinct “turn-off” representing the stars which are just about to leave the main sequence and become red giants.

It appears that M67 does not contain an unbiased sample of stars. One cause of this is mass segregation, the process by which lighter stars (actually, systems) gain speed at the expense of more massive stars during close encounters, which causes the lighter stars to be at a greater average distance from the center of the cluster or to escape altogether.

Then there’s NGC 2775, which is positioned some 60 million light years away. NGC 2775 is a peculiar blend of spiral galaxy with a smooth bulge in the center. The star formation is confined to this ring of tightly wound arms, and the galaxy has been the location of 5 supernovae explosions in the past 30 years!

Next up is DX Cancri, a faint, magnitude 14, cool red dwarf star that has less than 9% the mass of our Sun. It is a flare star that has intermittent changes in brightness by up to a five-fold increase. This star is far too faint to be seen with the naked eye, even though it is the 18th closest star system to the Sun at a distance of 11.82 light years, and is the closest star in the constellation Cancer.

Artist’s impression of the super-Earth 55 Cancri e in front of its parent star. Credit: ESA/NASA
Artist’s impression of the super-Earth 55 Cancri e in front of its parent star. Credit: ESA/NASA

Now set your mark on 55 Cancri (located at RA 8 52 35 Dec +28 19 59). Also known as Rho1 Cancri, this binary star system is located approximately 41 light-years away from Earth and has a whole solar system of its own! The system consists of a yellow dwarf star and a smaller red dwarf star, separated by over 1,000 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun.

As of 2007, five extrasolar planets have been confirmed to be orbiting the primary – 55 Cancri A (the yellow dwarf). The innermost planet is thought to be a terrestrial “super-Earth” planet, with a mass similar to Neptune, while the outermost planets are thought to be Jovian planets with masses similar to Jupiter.

Finding Cancer:

As one of the 12 constellations along the ecliptic, Cancer is relatively easy to find with small telescopes and even binoculars. It lies in the second quadrant of the northern hemisphere (NQ2) and can be seen at latitudes between +90° and -60°. It occupies an area of 506 square degrees, making it the 31st largest constellation in the night sky.

There is only one meteor shower associated with the constellation of Cancer. The peak date for the Delta Cancrids is on or about January 16th. The radiant, or point of origin is just west of Beehive. It is a minor shower and the fall rate averages only about 4 per hour and the meteors are very swift.

The location of the Caner constellation. Credit: IAU
The location of the Caner constellation. Credit: IAU

Like all of the traditional constellations that belong to the Zodiac family, the significance of Cancer has not waned, despite the passage of several thousand years. Best of luck finding it, though you won’t need much!

We have written many interesting articles about the constellation here at Universe Today. Here is What Are The Constellations?What Is The Zodiac?, and Zodiac Signs And Their Dates.

Be sure to check out The Messier Catalog while you’re at it!

For more information, check out the IAUs list of Constellations, and the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space page on Cancer and Constellation Families.

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