Messier 22 – The Sagittarius Nebula

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the Sagittarius Cluster (aka. Messier 22). Enjoy!

Back in the 18th century, famed French astronomer Charles Messier noted the presence of several “nebulous objects” in the night sky. Having originally mistaken them for comets, he began compiling a list of these objects so that others wouldn’t make the same mistake. Consisting of 100 objects, this “Messier Catalog” would come to be viewed by posterity as a major milestone in the study of Deep Space Objects.

One of these objects is the Sagittarius Cluster, otherwise known as Messier 22 (and NGC 6656). This elliptical globular cluster, is located in the constellation Sagittarius, near the Galactic bulge region. It is one of the brightest globulars visible in the night sky, and was therefore one of the first of its kind to be discovered and later studied.

Description:

Located around 10,400 light years from our Solar System, in the direction of Sagittarius, M22 occupied a volume of space that is 200 light years in diameter and is receding away from us at 149 kilometers per second. M22 has a lot in common with many other clusters of its type, which includes being a gravitationally bound sphere of stars, and that most of its stars are all about the same age – about 12 billion years old.

Messier 22, showing its proximity to Messier 28 and Kaus Borealis. Credit: Wikisky
Messier 22, showing its proximity to Messier 28 and Kaus Borealis. Credit: Wikisky

It is part of our galactic halo, and may once have been part of a galaxy that our Milky Way cannibalized. But it’s there that the similarities end. For example, it consists of at least 70,000 individual stars, only 32 of which are variable stars. It also spans an incredible 32 arc minutes in the sky and ranks as the fourth brightness of all the known globular clusters in our galaxy.

And four must be its lucky number, because it is also one of only four globular clusters known to contain a planetary nebula. Recent Hubble Space Telescope investigations of Messier 22 have led to the discovery of an astonishing discovery. For starters, in 1999, astronomers discovered six planet-sized objects floating around inside the cluster that were about 80 times the mass of Earth!

Using a technique known as microlensing, which measures the way gravity bends the light of the background stars, the Hubble Space Telescope was able to determine the existence of the gas giant. Even though the Hubble can’t resolve them because the angle at which the light bends is about 100 times smaller than the telescope’s angular resolution, scientist know they are there because the gravity “powers up” the starlight, making it brighter each time a body passes in front of it.

Because a microlensing event is very rare and totally unpredictable, the Hubble team needed to monitor 83,000 stars every three days for nearly four months. Luckily, a sharp peak in brightness was all the proof they needed that they were on the right track.

The center of the globular cluster Messier 22, also known as M22, as observed by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: ESA/HST/NASA
The center of the globular cluster Messier 22, also known as M22, as observed by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: ESA/HST/NASA

Said Kailash Sahu, of the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD, of the discovery in 2007: “Hubble’s excellent sharpness allowed us to make this remarkable new type of observation, successfully demonstrating our ability to see very small objects. This holds tremendous potential for further searches for dark, low-mass objects.”

During their study time, the Hubble team caught six microlensing events that lasted less than 20 hours and one which endured for 18 days. By calculating the times of the eclipses and the spikes in brightness, astronomers could then estimate the mass of the object passing in front of the star. These wandering rogues might be planets torn away from their parent stars by the huge amounts of gravitational influence from so many closely packed suns – or (in the case of the long event) simply a smaller mass star passing in front of another.

They could be brown dwarfs, or even a totally new type of object. As co-investigator Nino Panagia of the European Space Agency and Space Telescope Science Institute said: “Since we know that globular clusters like M22 are very old, this result opens new and exciting opportunities for the discovery and study of planet-like objects that formed in the early universe,”

Two black holes were also discovered in M22 and confirmed by the Chandra X-ray telescope in 2012. The objects have between 10 and 20 solar masses, and their discovery suggests that there may be 5 to 100 black holes within the cluster (and maybe some multiple black holes as well). The presence of black holes and their interaction with the stars of M22 could explain the cluster’s unusually large central region.

These are optical images of M22 and the candidate companion stars to the radio sources M22-VLA1 and M22-VLA2: the globular cluster M22, on the left, and the location of the radio sources on archival Hubble images. Credit: Doug Matthews/Adam Block/NOA/AURA/NSF/HST/NASA/ESA
Optical images of M22 and the candidate companion stars to the radio sources M22-VLA1 and M22-VLA2. Credit: Doug Matthews/Adam Block/NOA/AURA/NSF/HST/NASA/ESA

Other objects of interesting include two black holes – M22-VLA1 and M22-VLA2 – both of which are part of binary star systems. Each has a companion star and is pulling matter from it. This gas and dust, in turn, forms an accretion disk around each black hole, creating emissions that scientists used to confirm their existence.

Messier 22 is one of only four known globular clusters that contain a planetary nebula. This nebula – catalogued as GJJC1 or IRAS 18333-2357 – is rather small and young, being only 3 arcseconds in diameter and 6,000 years old. It was discovered in 1986 using the infrared satellite IRAS, and identified as a planetary nebula in 1989.

History of Observation:

Chances are, magnificent Messier 22 was probably the first globular cluster to ever be recorded in the history of astronomy, most likely by Abraham Ihle in 1665. Over the years it has been included in many historic observations, including Edmund Halley’s list of 6 objects published 1715, and observed by De Chéseaux (his Number 17) and Le Gentil, as well as by Abbe Nicholas Louis de la Caille, who included it in his catalog of southern objects (as Lacaille I.12).

Atlas image mosaic of Messier 22 obtained as part of the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS), a joint project of the University of Massachusetts and the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center/California Institute of Technology. Credit: NASA/NSF
Atlas image mosaic of Messier 22 obtained as part of the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS). Credit:UoM/IPAC/Caltech/NASA/NSF

However, it was Charles Messier who made it famous when he cataloged it as M22 on June 5th, 1764. As he said of the object at the time:

“I have observed a nebula situated a bit below the ecliptic, between the head and the bow of Sagittarius, near the star of seventh magnitude, the twenty-fifth of that constellation, according to the catalog of Flamsteed. That nebula didn’t appear to me to contain any star, although I have examined it with a good Gregorian telescope which magnified 104 times: it is round, and one sees it very well with an ordinary refractor of 3 feet and a half; its diameter is about 6 minutes of arc. I have determined its position by comparing with the star Lambda Sagittarii: its right ascension has been concluded as 275d 28′ 39″, and its declination as 24d 6′ 11”. It was Abraham Ihle, a German, who discovered this nebula in 1665, when observing Saturn. M. le Gentil has examined it also, and he has made an engraving of the configuration in the volume of the Memoirs of the Academy, for the year 1759, page 470. He observed it on August 29, 1747, under good weather, with a refractor of 18 feet length: He also observed it on July 17, and on other days. “It always appeared to me,” he says, “very irregular in its figure, hair and distributing in space of rays of light all over its diameter.”

While Messier’s description is a wonder, let us remember that he was a comet hunter by profession. Once more, it was the observer Admiral Smythto whom we are indebted for the most detailed and vivid description of the cluster:

“A fine globular cluster, outlying that astral stream, the Via Lactea [Milky Way], in the space between the Archer’s head and bow, not far from the point of the winter solstice, and midway between Mu and Sigma Sagittarii. It consists of very minute and thickly condensed particles of light, with a group of small stars preceding by 3m, somewhat in a crucial form. Halley ascribes the discovery of this in 1665, to Abraham Ihle, the German; but it has been thought this name should have been Abraham Hill, who was one of the first council of the Royal Society, and was wont to dabble with astronomy. Hevelius, however, appears to have noticed it previous to 1665, so that neither Ihle nor Hill can be supported.

“In August, 1747, it was carefully drawn by Le Gentil, as seen with an 18-foot telescope, which drawing appears in the Mémoires de l’Académie for 1759. In this figure three stars accompany the cluster, and he remarks that two years afterwards he did not see the preceding and central one: I, however, saw it very plainly in 1835. In the description he says, “Elle m’a toujours parue tres-irrégulière dans sa figure, chevelue, et rependant des espèces de rayons de lumière tout autout de son diamètre.” This passage, I quote, “as in duty bound;” but from familiarity with the object itself, I cannot say that I clearly understand how or why his telescope exhibited these “espèces de rayons.” Messier, who registered it in 1764, says nothing about them, merely observing that it is a nebula without a star, of a round form; and Sir William Herschel, who first resolved it, merely describes it as a circular cluster, with an estimated profundity of the 344th order. Sir John Herschel recommends it as a capital test for trying the space-penetrating power of a telescope.

“This object is a fine specimen of the compression on which the nebula-theory is built. The globular systems of stars appear thicker in the middle than they would do if these stars were all at equal distances from each other; they must, therefore, be condensed toward the centre. That the stars should be accidentally disposed is too improbable a supposition to be admitted; whence Sir William Herschel supposes that they are thus brought together by their mutual attractions, and that the gradual condensation towards the centre must be received as proof of a central power of such kind.”

Messier 22 location. Image: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)
The location of Messier 22 in the night sky. Credit: IAU/Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

Locating Messier 22:

From its position almost on the ecliptic plane, bright globular cluster M22 is easy to find in optics of all sizes. The most important clue is simply identifying the Sagittarius “teapot” shape. Once you’ve located it, just choose the “lid” star, Lambda (Kaus Borealis) and look about a fingerwidth (2 degrees) due northeast. In binoculars, if you center on Lambda, M22 will appear in the 10:00 region of your field of view.

In a finderscope, you will need to hop from Lambda northeast to 24 Sagittari and you’ll see it as a faint fuzzy nearby also to the northeast. From a dark sky location, Messier Object 22 can also sometimes be spotted with the unaided eye! No matter what size optics you use, this large, very luminous ball of stars is quite appealing. A joy to binocular users and an exercise in resolution to telescopes.

And here are the quick facts to help you get started:

Object Name: Messier 22
Alternative Designations: M22, NGC 6656
Object Type: Class VII Globular Star Cluster
Constellation: Sagittarius
Right Ascension: 18 : 36.4 (h:m)
Declination: -23 : 54 (deg:m)
Distance: 10.4 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 5.1 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 32.0 (arc min)

Go on… Magnificent Messier 22 is waiting for you to appreciate it!

We have written many interesting articles about Messier Objects here at Universe Today. Here’s Tammy Plotner’s Introduction to the Messier Objects, , M1 – The Crab Nebula, M8 – The Lagoon 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.

Sources:

Messier 20 (M20) – The Trifid Nebula

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the Trifid Nebula (aka. Messier 20). Enjoy!

Back in the 18th century, famed French astronomer Charles Messier noted the presence of several “nebulous objects” in the night sky. Having originally mistaken them for comets, he began compiling a list of these objects so that others wouldn’t make the same mistake. Consisting of 100 objects, the Messier Catalog would come to be viewed by posterity as a major milestone in the study of Deep Space Objects.

One of these objects is the Trifid Nebula (aka. Messier 20, NGC 6514), a star-forming region of ionized gas located in the Scutum spiral arm of the Milky Way, in the direction of the southern Sagittarius constellation. A bright object that is a favorite amongst amateur astronomers, this object is so-named because it is a combination open star cluster, emissions nebula, reflection nebula, and a dark nebula that looks like it consists of three lobes.

Description:

Almost everyone who is familiar with space images has likely seen a beautiful color image of this emission and reflection nebula. However, when looking at M20 through a telescope, what you will see will be less colorful. Why? When it comes to photographs, exposure times and wavelengths cause different colors to become visible.

Composite image comparing visible-light views from Hubble of the Trifid Nebula with an infrared view from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope of the glowing Trifid Nebula. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/J. Rho (SSC/Caltech)
Composite image comparing visible-light views from Hubble of the Trifid Nebula with an infrared view from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope of the glowing Trifid Nebula. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/J. Rho (SSC/Caltech)

Photographically, the red emission nebula contained within Messier 20 has a bright blue star cluster in it central portion. It glows red because the ultraviolet light of the stars ionizes the hydrogen gas, which then recombines and emits the characteristic red hydrogen-alpha light captured on film. Further away, the radiation from these hot, young stars becomes too weak to ionize the hydrogen. Now the gas and dust glows blue by reflection!

No matter how it is observed, the Trifid – or “three lobed” – nebula has a distinctive set of dark dust lanes which divide it. These also have a classification of their own, and were cataloged by E.E. Barnard as a dark nebula – Barnard 85 (B 85). In 1999 the Hubble Space Telescope took a look deep into the Trifid nebula at some of its star forming regions (see below).

What it found was a stellar jet poking its way into the cloud, like a fabulous twisted antenna. Inside the exhaust column is a new star waiting to be born, yet sometime over the next 10,000 years the central massive star will probably erode away all of its material before it can fully form. Nearby, a stalk stands waiting.

Close up on the interiotr of the Trifid Nebula. Credit: NASA/HST
Close up on the interior of the Trifid Nebula, showing the star forming region and a stellar jet. Credit: NASA/HST

Like the jet, it is also a stellar nursery – one with an EGG (evaporating gaseous globule) at its tip – a condensed cloud of gas able to survive so far. As Jeff Hester of the Department of Physics & Astronomy explained:

“If our interpretation is correct, the microjet may be the last gasp from a star that was cut off from its supply lines 100,000 years ago. The vast majority of stars like our sun form not in isolation, but in the neighborhood of massive, powerful stars. HST observations of the Trifid Nebula provide a window on the nature of star formation in the vicinity of massive stars, as well as a spectacular snapshot of the “ecology” from which stars like our sun emerge.”

We know that Messier 20 contains new stars, but what about old stars? Are there surprises buried within these bright folds that still await discovery? According to F. Yusef-Zadeh (et al) and a 2000 study titled “Radio continuum emission from the central stars of M20 and the detection of a new supernova remnant near M20“, the answer is yes:

“We report the discovery of a new candidate barrel-shaped supernova remnant (SNR) lying adjacent to M20 and two shell-type features to the north and east of SNR W28. Future observations should clarify whether the nonthermal shell fragment is either part of W20 or yet another previously unidentified shell-type SNR.”

The Trifid nebula (M20, NGC NGC 6514) in pseudocolor. Image taken with the Palomar 1.5-m telescope. The field of view is 16’ ´ 16’. Red shows [S II] ll 6717+6731. Green shows Ha l 6563. Blue shows [O III] l 5007. The WFPC2 field of view is indicated. Image: Jeff Hester (Arizona State University), Palomar telescope.
The Trifid nebula (M20, NGC NGC 6514) in pseudocolor. Image taken with the Palomar 1.5-m telescope. Credit: Jeff Hester (Arizona State University)/Palomar telescope

History of Observation:

Charles Messier discovered this object on June 5th, 1764. As he recorded of the object in his notes:

“In the same night I have determined the position of two clusters of stars which are close to each other, a bit above the Ecliptic, between the bow of Sagittarius and the right foot of Ophiuchus: the known star closest to these two clusters is the 11th of the constellation Sagittarius, of seventh magnitude, after the catalog of Flamsteed: the stars of these clusters are, from the eighth to the ninth magnitude, environed with nebulosities. I have determined their positions. The right ascension of the first cluster, 267d 4′ 5″, its declination 22d 59′ 10″ south. The right ascension of the second, 267d 31′ 35″; its declination, 22d 31′ 25″ south.”

While Messier did separate the two star clusters, he did not note so many different portions to the nebula – but, he did note nebulosity. In this circumstance, we cannot fault him. His purpose was to locate comets, after all; and the reason for the catalog was to list objects that were not. In later years, it would be Sir William Herschel who would take a closer look at Messier 20 and discover much more. As he wrote of the nebula:

“If it was supposed that double nebulae at some distance from each other would frequently be seen, it will now on the contrary be admitted that an expectation of finding a great number of attracting centers in a nebulosity of no great extent is not so probable; and accordingly observation has shewn that greater combinations of nebular than those of the foregoing article are less frequently to be seen. The following list however contains 20 treble, 5 quadruple, and 1 sextuple nebulae of this sort. Among the treble nebulae there is one, namely H V.10 [M20], of which the nebulosity is not yet separated. Three nebulae seem to join faintly together, forming a kind of triangle; the middle of which is less nebulous, or perhaps free of nebulosity; in the middle of the triangle is a double star of the 2nd or 3rd class; more faint nebulosities are following.”

A close detail of the Trifid Nebula, showing the "Pillar region". Credit: NASA and Jeff Hester (Arizona State University).
A close detail of the Trifid Nebula, showing a “Pillar” region. Credit: NASA/Jeff Hester (Arizona State University).

While William went on to catalog four separate areas in his books, it was his son John to whom we owe the famous name that we know it by today. “A most remarkable object. Very large; trifid, three nebulae with a vacuity in the midst, in which is centrally situated the double star Sh 379, the nebula is 7′ in extent. A most remarkable object.”

Just remember when you observe that sky conditions are everything and that not even a large telescope can make it appear if the sky isn’t right. Even Admiral Smyth has his share of troubles spotting it. Said he of the Trifid Nebula:

“I lowered the telescope a couple of degrees, and gazed for the curious trifid nebula, 41 H. IV [H IV.41]; but though I could make out the delicate triple star in the centre of its opening, the nebulous matter resisted the light of my telescope, so that its presence was only indicated by a peculiar glow. Pretty closely preceding this is No. 20 M., an elegant cruciform group of stars, discovered in 1764, which he considered to be surrounded with nebulosity.”

Locating Messier 20:

Once you have become familiar with the Sagittarius region, finding Messier 20 is easy, since it is located just 2 degrees northwest of Messier 8 – the “Lagoon” Nebula. However, at magnitude 9, it isn’t an easy to spot with small binoculars, and not always easy for a small telescope either. Because we often see it depicted in pictures as bright and beautiful, we simply assume M20 will jump out of the sky; but you’ll find that its a lot fainter and more elusive than you might think.

The Sagittarius constellation. Credit: iau.org
The Sagittarius constellation. Credit: iau.org

If you are a beginner to astronomy, try starting at the teapot’s tip star (Lambda), “Al Nasl”, and starhopping in the finderscope northwest to the Lagoon. While the nebulosity might not show in your finder, the optical double star 7 Sagittari, will. From there you will spot a bright cluster of stars two degrees due north. These are the stars embedded withing the Trifid and the small, compressed area of stars to its northeast is the open star cluster of Messier 21.

Center your finderscope on the north and south oriented pair of stars and observe. Remember that you will need a moonless night and that sky conditions will need to be right to see the dark dustlanes! And here are the quick facts about M20, for your convenience:

Object Name: Messier 20
Alternative Designations: M20, NGC 6514, Trifid Nebula
Object Type: Emission Nebula and Reflection Nebula with Open Star Cluster
Constellation: Sagittarius
Right Ascension: 18 : 02.6 (h:m)
Declination: -23 : 02 (deg:m)
Distance: 5.2 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 9.0 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 28.0 (arc min)

Good luck and enjoy your observations!

We have written many interesting articles about Messier Objects here at Universe Today. Here’s Tammy Plotner’s Introduction to the Messier Objects, , M1 – The Crab Nebula, M8 – The Lagoon 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.

Messier 18 (M18) – The NGC 6613 Star Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the Messier 18 open star cluster. Enjoy!

In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier began noticing a series of “nebulous objects” in the night sky. Hoping to ensure that other astronomers did not make the same mistake, he began compiling a list of these objects,. Known to posterity as the Messier Catalog, this list has come to be one of the most important milestones in the research of Deep Sky objects.

One of these objects was Messier 18 (aka. NGC 6613), a relatively dim open star cluster located in the constellation Sagittarius. Located in close proximity to Messier 17 (the Omega Nebula), it is possible that these two clusters formed together.

Description:

Located about 4,900 light years from Earth, and spread over an expanse measuring 17 light-years across, this group of around 20 stars is only about 32 million years old. Its hottest members are spectral type B3, yet you will also see many yellow and orange stars as well. But as already noted, M18 may not be alone in space.

According to research done by R. and C. R. de la Fuente Marcos, M18 may very well be a binary cluster, paired with the open cluster – NGC 6618 – which is harbored inside M17:

“We have shown that binary open clusters appear to constitute a statistically significant sample and that the fraction of possible binary clusters in the Galactic disk is comparable to that in the Magellanic Clouds. The spatial proximity of two almost coeval open clusters, compared to the large distances which typically separate these objects, suggests that both objects were formed together. In starforming complexes, one star cluster might capture another to form a bound state in the presence of a third body or of energy dissipation. This mechanism may also be at work within orbital resonances for non-coeval clusters.”

Messier 18 location. Image: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)
The location of Messier 18 in the Sagittarius constellation. Credit: IAU/Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

History of Observation:

M18 was one of Charles Messier’s original discoveries, which took place in 1764. As he wrote in his notes upon observing the cluster:

“In the same night [June 3 to 4, 1764], I have discovered a bit below the nebula reported here above, a cluster of small stars, environed in a thin nebulosity; its extension may be 5 minutes of arc: its appearances are less sensible in an ordinary refractor of 3 feet and a half [FL] than that of the two preceding [M16 and M17]: with a modest refractor, this star cluster appears in the form of a nebula; but when employing a good instrument, as I have done, one sees well many of the small stars: after my observations I have determined its position: its right ascension is 271d 34′ 3″, and its declination 17d 13′ 14″ south.”

In this circumstance, we must give Messier great credit considering his observations were performd long before the nature of open clusters and stellar movement were understood. While Messier seems to have spotted some nebulosity around the cluster (which may have belonged to M17), he takes a later historic cut from Smyth:

“A neat double star, in a long and straggling assemblage of stars,below the Polish shield. A 9 and B 11 [mag], both blueish. This cluster was discovered by Messier in 1764, and registered as a mass of small stars appearing like a nebula in a 3 1/2-foot telescope; which affords another instance that the means of that very zealous observer did not quadrate with his diligence.”

What a shame Smyth wasn’t around to later know that M18 could be paired with its nebulous neighbor!

Credit: Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS), a joint project of the University of Massachusetts and the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center/California Institute of Technology, funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Science Foundation.
The open cluster Messier 18 (NGC 6613), as observed by the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS). Credit: University of Massachusetts/IPAC/Caltech/NASA/NSF

Locating Messier 18:

Because Messier 18 is nothing more than a small collection of stars which are slightly brighter than the background Milky Way stars, it isn’t easy to distinguish it using binoculars or a finderscope if you’ve never seen it before. One of the most sure ways of locating it is to become familiar with Messier 17 and simply aim a couple of degrees (about a field of view) south.

While it won’t strike you as a grand object, you will notice that the stars are compressed in this area and that there are several dozen of them which appear brighter than the rest. In a telescope, use your lowest magnification. Since this is a very well spread cluster, it is easily resolved in even modest instruments.

And here are the quick facts on M18 to get you started:

Object Name: Messier 18
Alternative Designations: M18, NGC 6613
Object Type: Open Star Cluster
Constellation: Sagittarius
Right Ascension: 18 : 19.9 (h:m)
Declination: -17 : 08 (deg:m)
Distance: 4.9 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 7.5 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 9.0 (arc min)

We have written many interesting articles about Messier Objects here at Universe Today. Here’s Tammy Plotner’s Introduction to the Messier Objects, , M1 – The Crab Nebula, M8 – The Lagoon 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.

Messier 17 (M17) – the Omega Nebula

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the Messier 17 nebula – aka. The Omega Nebula (and a few other names).

In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier began noticing a series of “nebulous objects” in the night sky. Hoping to ensure that other astronomers did not make the same mistake, he began compiling a list of these objects,. Known to posterity as the Messier Catalog, this list has come to be one of the most important milestones in the research of Deep Sky objects.

One of these is the star-forming nebula known as Messier 17 – or as it’s more famously known, the Omega Nebula (or Swan Nebula, Checkmark Nebula, and Horseshoe Nebula). Located in the Sagittarius constellation, this beautiful nebula is considered one of the brightest and most massive star-forming regions in our galaxy.

Description:

From its position in space some 5,000 to 6,000 light years from Earth, the “Omega” nebula occupies a region as large as 40 light years across, with its brightest porition covering a 15 light year expanse. Like many nebulae, this giant cosmic cloud of interstellar matter is a starforming region in the Sagittarius or Sagittarius-Carina arm of our Milky Way galaxy.

What you see is the hot hydrogen gas that is illuminated when its particles are excited by the hottest of the stars that have just formed within the nebula. Also, some of the light is being reflected by the nebula’s own dust. These remain hidden by dark obscuring material, and we know their presence only through the detection of their infrared radiation.

Credit: NASA/Ignacio de la Cueva Torregrosa
Image of M17 showing specific elements based on their color, including sulfur (red), hydrogen (green), oxygen (blue). Credit: NASA/Ignacio de la Cueva Torregrosa

In an study titled “Interstellar Weather Vanes: GLIMPSE Mid-Infrared Stellar-Wind Bowshocks in M17 and RCW49“, astronomer Matthew S. Povich (et al.) of the University of Wisconsin-Madison said of M17:

“We report the discovery of six infrared stellar-wind bowshocks in the Galactic massive star formation regions M17 and RCW49 from Spitzer GLIMPSE (Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire) images. The InfraRed Array Camera (IRAC) on the Spitzer Space Telescope clearly resolves the arc-shaped emission produced by the bowshocks. We use the stellar SEDs to estimate the spectral types of the three newly-identified O stars in RCW49 and one previously undiscovered O star in M17. One of the bowshocks in RCW49 reveals the presence of a large-scale flow of gas escaping the HII region. Radiation-transfer modeling of the steep rise in the SED of this bowshock toward longer mid-infrared wavelengths indicates that the emission is coming principally from dust heated by the star driving the shock. The other 5 bowshocks occur where the stellar winds of O stars sweep up dust in the expanding HII regions.”

Is Messier 17 still actively producing stars? You bet. Even protostars have been discovered hiding in its folds. As M. Nielbock (et al), wrote in 2008:

“For the first time, we resolve the elongated central infrared emission of the large accretion disk in M 17 into a point-source and a jet-like feature that extends to the northeast. We regard the unresolved emission as to originate from an accreting intermediate to high-mass protostar. In addition, our images reveal a weak and curved southwestern lobe whose morphology resembles that of the previously detected northeastern one. We interpret these lobes as the working surfaces of a recently detected jet interacting with the ambient medium at a distance of 1700 AU from the disk centre. The accreting protostar is embedded inside a circumstellar disk and an envelope causing a visual extinction. This and its K-band magnitude argue in favour of an intermediate to high-mass object, equivalent to a spectral type of at least B4. For a main-sequence star, this would correspond to a stellar mass of 4 M.”

Omega Nebula location. Image: Wikisky
The location of the Omega Nebula, with other Messier objects and major stars shown. Image: Wikisky

How many new stars lay hidden inside? Far more than the famous Orion nebula may contain. So says a 2013 study produced by L. Eisa (et al):

“The complex resembles the Orion Nebula/KL region seen nearly edge-on: the bowl-shaped ionization blister is eroding the edge of the clumpy molecular cloud and triggering massive star formation, as evidenced by an ultra-compact HII region and luminous protostars. Only the most massive members of the young NGC 6618 stellar cluster exciting the nebula have been characterized, due to the comparatively high extinction. Near-infrared imagery and spectroscopy reveal an embedded cluster of about 100 stars earlier than B9. These studies did not cover the entire cluster, so even more early stars may be present. This is substantially richer than the Orion Nebula Cluster which has only 8 stars between O6 and B9.”

History of Observation:

The Omega Nebula was first discovered by Philippe Loys de Cheseaux and is just one of the six nebulae in his documents. As he wrote of his discovery:

“Finally, another nebula, which has never been observed. It is of a completely different shape than the others: It has perfectly the form of a ray, or of the tail of a comet, of 7′ length and 2′ broadth; its sides are exactly parallel and rather well terminated, as are its two ends. Its middle is whiter than the border.” Because De Cheseaux’s work wasn’t widely read, Charles Messier independently rediscovered it on June 3, 1764 and cataloged it in his own way: “In the same night, I have discovered at little distance of the cluster of stars of which I just have told, a train of light of five or six minutes of arc in extension, in the shape of a spindle, and in almost the same as that in the girdle of Andromeda; but of a very faint light, not containing any star; one can see two of them nearby which are telescopic and placed parallel to the Equator: in a good sky one perceives very well that nebula with an ordinary refractor of 3 feet and a half. I have determined its position in right ascension of 271d 45′ 48″, and its declination of 16d 14′ 44” south.

Omega Nebula sketch by John Herschel, 1833. Credit: messier-objects.com
Omega Nebula sketch by John Herschel, 1833. Credit: messier-objects.com

By historical accounts, it was Sir William Herschel who may have truly had a little bit of insight on what this object might one day mean when he observed it on his own and reported:

“1783, July 31. A very singular nebula; it seems to be the link to join the nebula in Orion to others, for this is not without a possibility of being stars. I think a great deal more of light and a much higher power would be of service. 1784, June 22 (Sw. 231). A wonderful nebula. Very much extended, with a hook on the preceding [Western] side; the nebulosity of the milky kind; several stars visible in it, but they seem to have no connection with the nebula, which is far more distant. I saw it only through short intervals of flying clouds and haziness; but the extent of the light including the hook is above 10′. I suspect besides, that on the following [Eastern] side it goes on much farther and diffuses itself towards the north and south. It is not of equal brightness throughout and has one or more places where the milky nebulosity seems to degenerate into the resolvable [mottled] kind; such a one is that just following the hook towards the north. Should this be confirmed on a very fine night, it would bring on the step between these two nebulosities which is at present wanting, and would lead us to surmise that this nebula is a stupendous stratum of immensely distant fixed stars, some of whose branches come near enough to us to be visible as a resolvable nebulosity, while the rest runs on to so great a distance as only to appear under the milky form.”

So where did the name “Omega Nebula” come from? That credit goes to John Herschel, who stated in his observing notes:

“The figure of this nebula is nearly that of the Greek capital Omega, somewhat distorted and very unequally bright. It is remarkable that this is the form usually attributed to the great nebula in Orion, though in that nebula I confess I can discern no resemblence whatever to the Greek letter. Messier perceived only the bright preceding branch of the nebula now in question, without any of the attached convolutions which were first noticed by my Father. The chief peculiarities which I have observed in it are, 1st, the resolvable knot in the following portion of the bright branch, which is in a considerable degree insulated from the surrounding nebula; strongly suggesting the idea of an absorption of nebulous matter; and 2ndly, the much feebler and smaller knot in the north preceding end of the same branch, where the nebula makes a sudden bend at an acute angle. With a view to a more exact representation of this curious nebula, I have at different times taken micrometrical measures of the relative places of the stars in and near it, by which, when laid down on the chart, its limits may be traced and identified, as I hope soon to have better opportunity to do than its low situation in this latitudes will permit.”

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/M. Povich (Univ. of Wisconsin)
Infrared images of M17, taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/M. Povich (Univ. of Wisconsin)

Locating Messier 17:

Because M17 is both large and quite bright, its distinctive “2” shape isn’t hard to make out in optics of any size. For binoculars and image correct finderscopes, try starting with the constellation of Aquila and begin tracing the stars down the eagle’s back to Lambda. When you reach that point, continue to extend the line through to Alpha Scuti, then southwards towards Gamma Scuti. M16 is slightly more than 2 degrees (about a fingerwidth) southwest of this star.

If you are in a dark sky location, you can also identify it easily in binoculars by starting at the M24 “Star Cloud”, north of Lambda Sagittari (the teapot lid star), and simply scanning north. This nebula is bright enough to even cut through moderately light polluted skies with ease, but don’t expect to see it when the Moon is nearby. You’ll enjoy the rich starfields combined with an interesting nebula in binoculars, while telescopes will easily begin resolving the interior stars.

And here are the quick facts on M17 for your convenience:

Object Name: Messier 17
Alternative Designations: M17, NGC 6618, Omega, Swan, Horseshoe, or Lobster Nebula
Object Type: Open Star Cluster with Emission Nebula
Constellation: Sagittarius
Right Ascension: 18 : 20.8 (h:m)
Declination: -16 : 11 (deg:m)
Distance: 5.0 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 6.0 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 11.0 (arc min)

And be sure to enjoy this video from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) that shows this nebula in all its glory:

We have written many interesting articles about Messier Objects here at Universe Today. Here’s Tammy Plotner’s Introduction to the Messier Objects, , M1 – The Crab Nebula, M8 – The Lagoon 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.

Messier 10 (M10) – The NGC 6254 Globular Cluster

Welcome to another installment of Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by taking a look at Messier Object 10.

In the 18th century, French astronomer Charles Messier noted the presence of several “nebulous objects” in the night sky while searching for comets. Hoping to ensure that other astronomers did not make the same mistake, he began compiling a list of 1oo  of them. This list came to be known as the Messier Catalog, and would have far-reaching consequences.

In addition to being as a major milestone in the history of astronomy and the study of Deep Sky Objects. One of these objects is known as Messier 10 (aka. NGC 6254), a globular cluster that is located in the equatorial constellation of Ophiuchus. Of the many globular clusters that appear in this constellation (seven of which were cataloged by Messier himself) M10 is the brightest, and can be spotted with little more than a pair of binoculars. Continue reading “Messier 10 (M10) – The NGC 6254 Globular Cluster”

Planetary Nebulae

No, planetary nebulae are not nebulae found around planets; nor are they nebulae produced by planets … rather, they got stuck with this name because the first ones to be observed (and written about) look like planets (well, they did through the eyepieces of the telescopes of the time … somewhat).

Charles Messier – yep, the comet hunting guy – listed M27 in his famous catalog; that’s the Dumbbell Nebula, and the first planetary nebula recorded (1764). It was Herschel – the guy who discovered Uranus – who dreamed up the name ‘planetary nebula’; and why? Because, to him, they looked a bit like the gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus (Neptune wasn’t discovered then). There are four planetary nebulae in Messier’s list; in addition to M27, there’s M57 (the Ring Nebula), M76 (Little Dumbbell Nebula), and M97 (Owl Nebula). So why did Herschel say planetary nebulae looked like giant planets, including Saturn? Because, in 1781, he discovered one – NGC 7009 – that looked like Saturn! Guess what it’s called? The Saturn Nebula.

When spectroscopes were used to observe planetary nebulae, they caused excitement; unlike stars and (what we today call) galaxies – which have dark absorption lines in their spectra – planetary nebula have bright emission lines (and essentially nothing else, i.e. no continuum emission). Further, the brightest of the lines (actually two, close together), in most planetary nebulae, corresponded to nothing ever seen in any laboratory spectrum … so they were thought to be caused by an as yet undiscovered element, called nebulium.

Today we understand planetary nebulae to be a short-lived phase of (most) stars … after the red giant phase, when the star’s fuel has been exhausted, it shrinks to become a white dwarf. The gas expelled during the red giant phase become heated and ionized by the intense UV radiation of the new white dwarf (these central objects, in most planetary nebulae, are among the hottest stars). The plasma has an extremely low density, which means that certain excited, meta-stable states of ions such as O2+ can jump to a lower energy state by emission of ‘forbidden’ radiation (rather than by collision).

Such spectacular objects … no surprise that Universe Today has many stories and articles on planetary nebulae! Here are just a few Found: Planetary Nebula Around Heavy Stars, Planets May Actually Shape Planetary Nebulae, Will We Look Like This in 5 Billion Years?, and Penetrating New View Into The Helix Nebula.

Astronomy Cast’s Nebulae has more on planetary nebulae; the following episodes put planetary nebulae into a broader astronomical context: The End of the Universe Part 1: The End of the Solar System, The Life of the Sun, and The Life of Other Stars.

Source: SEDS