Messier 57 – The Ring Nebula

Welcome back to Messier Monday! We continue our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the the Big Ring itself, the planetary nebula known as Messier 57. Enjoy!

In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier kept noting the presence of fixed, diffuse objects in the night sky. In time, he would come to compile a list of approximately 100 of these objects, with the purpose of making sure that astronomers did not mistake them for comets. However, this list – known as the Messier Catalog – would go on to serve a more important function.

One of these objects is known as Messier 57, a planetary nebula that is also known as the Ring Nebula. This object is located about 2,300 light years from Earth in the direction of the Lyra constellation. Because of its proximity to Vega, the brightest star in Lyra and one of the stars that form the Summer Triangle, the nebula is relatively easy to find using binoculars or a small telescope.

What You Are Looking At:

Here you see the remainders of a sun-like star… At one time in its life, it may have had twice the mass of Sol, but now all that’s left is a white dwarf that burns over 100,000 degrees kelvin. Surrounding it is an envelope about 2 to 3 light years in size of what once was its outer layers – blown away in a cylindrical shape some 6000 to 8000 years ago. Like looking down the barrel of a smoking gun, we’re looking back in time at the end of a Mira-like star’s evolutionary phase.

It’s called a planetary nebula, because once upon a time before telescopes could resolve them, they appeared almost planet-like. But, as for M57, the central star itself is no larger than a terrestrial planet! The tiny white dwarf star, although it could be as much as 2300 light years away, has an intrinsic brightness of about 50 to 100 times that of our Sun.

One of the most beautiful features of M57 is the structure in the ring itself, sometimes called braiding – but scientifically known as “knots” in the gaseous structure. As C.R. O’Dell (et al) indicated in their 2003 study:

“We have studied the closest bright planetary nebulae with the Hubble Space Telescope’s WFPC2 in order to characterize the dense knots already known to exist in NGC 7293. We find knots in all of the objects, arguing that knots are common, simply not always observed because of distance. The knots appear to form early in the life cycle of the nebula, probably being formed by an instability mechanism operating at the nebula’s ionization front. As the front passes through the knots they are exposed to the photoionizing radiation field of the central star, causing them to be modified in their appearance. This would then explain as evolution the difference of appearance like the lacy filaments seen only in extinction in IC 4406 on the one extreme and the highly symmetric “cometary” knots seen in NGC 7293. The intermediate form knots seen in NGC 2392, NGC 6720, and NGC 6853 would then represent intermediate phases of this evolution.”

However, examining things like planetaries nebulae in different wavelengths of light can tell us so much more about them. Behold the beauty when see through the Spitzer Space Telescope! As M.M. Roth explained in a 2007 study:

“Emission nebulae like H II regions, Planetary Nebulae, Novae, Herbig Haro objects etc. are found as extended objects in the Milky Way, but also as point sources in other galaxies, where they are sometimes observable out to very large distances due to the high contrast provided by some prominent emission lines. It is shown how 3D spectroscopy can be used as a powerful tool for observations of both large resolved emission nebulae and distant extragalactic objects, with special emphasis on faint detection limits.”

History of Observation:

This deep space object was first discovered in early January 1779 by Antoine Darquier who wrote in his notes:

“This nebula, to my knowledge, has not yet been noticed by any astronomer. One can only see it with a very good telescope, it is not resembling any of those [nebula] already known; it has the apparent dimension of Jupiter, is perfectly round and sharply limited; its dull glow resembles the dark part of the Moon before the first and after the last quarter. Meanwhile, the center appears a bit less pale than the remaining part of its surface.”

Although Darquier did not post a date, it is believed his observation preceded Messier’s independent recovery made on January 31, 1779 when he states that Darquier picked it up before him:

“A cluster of light between Gamma and Beta Lyrae, discovered when looking for the Comet of 1779, which has passed it very close: it seems that this patch of light, which is round, must be composed of very small stars: with the best telescopes it is impossible to distinguish them; there stays only a suspicion that they are there. M. Messier reported this patch of light on the Chart of the Comet of 1779. M. Darquier, at Toulouse, discovered it when observing the same comet, and he reports: ‘Nebula between gamma and beta Lyrae; it is very dull, but perfectly outlined; it is as large as Jupiter and resembles a planet which is fading’.”

A few years later, Sir William Herschel would also observe Messier Object 57 with his superior telescope and in his private notes he writes:

“Among the curiosities of the heavens should be placed a nebula, that has a regular, concentric, dark spot in the middle, and is probably a Ring of stars. It is of an oval shape, the shorter axis being to the longer as about 83 to 100; so that, if the stars form a circle, its inclination to a line drawn from the sun to the center of this nebula must be about 56 degrees. The light is of the resolvable kind [i.e., mottled], and in the northern side three very faint stars may be seen, as also one or two in the southern part. The vertices of the longer axis seem less bright and not so well defined as the rest. There are several small stars very bear, but none seems to belong to it.”

Admiral Smyth would go on in later years to add his own detailed observations to history’s records:

“This annular nebula, between Beta and Gamma on the cross-piece of the Lyre, forms the apex of a triangle which it makes with two stars of the 9th magnitude; and its form is that of an elliptic ring, the major axis of which trends sp to nf [SW to NE]. This wonderful object seems to have been noted by Darquier, in 1779; but neither he nor his contemporaries, Messier and Méchain, discerned its real form, seeing in this aureola of glory only “a mass of light in the form of a planetary disc, very dingy in colour.”

“Sir W. Herschel called it a perforated resolvable nebula, and justly ranked it among the curiosities of the heavens. He considered the vertices of the longer axis less bright and not so well defined as the rest; and he afterwards added: ‘By the observations of the 20-feet telescope, the profundity of the stars, of which it probably consists, must be of a higher than the 900th order, perhaps 950.'”

“This is a vast view of the ample and inconceivable dimensions of the spaces of the Universe; and if the oft-cited cannon-ball, flying with the uniform velocity of 500 miles an hour, would require millions of years to reach Sirius, what an incomprehensible time it would require to pass so overwhelming an interval as 950 times the distance! And yet, could we arrive there, by all analogy, no boundary would meet the eye, but thousands and ten thousands of other remote and crowded systems would still bewilder the imagination.

“In my refractor this nebula has a most singular appearance, the central vacuity being black, so as to countenance the trite remark of its having a hole through it. Under favourable circumstances, when the instrument obeys the smooth motion of the equatorial clock, it offers the curious phenomenon of a solid ring of light in the profundity of space. The annexed sketch affords a notion of it. Sir John Herschel, however, with the superior light of his instrument, found that the interior is far from absolutely dark. “It is filled,’ he says, ‘with a feeble but very evident nebulous light, which I do not remember to have been noticed by former observers.'”

Since Sir John’s observation, the powerful telescope of Lord Rosse has been directed to this subject, and under powers 600, 800, and 1000, it displayed very evident symptoms of resolvability at its minor axis. The fainter nebulous matter which fills it, was found to be irregularly distributed, having several stripes or wisps in it, and the regularity of the outline was broken by appendages branching into space, of which prolongations the brightest was in the direction of the major axis.

Locating Messier 57:

M57 is a breeze to locate because it is positioned between Beta and Gamma Lyrae (the westernmost pair of the lyre’s stars), at about one-third the distance from Beta to Gamma. While it is easily seen in binoculars, it is a little difficult to identify because of its small size, so binoculars must be very steady to distinguish it from the surrounding star field.

In even a small telescope at minimum power, you’ll quickly notice a very small, but perfect ring structure which takes very well to magnification. Despite low visual brightness, M57 actually takes well to urban lighting conditions and can even be spied during fairly well moonlit nights. Larger aperture telescopes will easily see braiding in the nebula structure and often glimpse the central star. May you also see the many faces of the “Ring”!

The location of Messier 57 in the Lyra Constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

And here are the quick facts on Messier 57 to help you get started:

Object Name: Messier 57
Alternative Designations: M57, NGC 6720, the “Ring Nebula”
Object Type: Planetary Nebula
Constellation: Lyra
Right Ascension: 18 : 53.6 (h:m)
Declination: +33 : 02 (deg:m)
Distance: 2.3 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 8.8 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 1.4×1.0 (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.

Sources:

Messier 56 – the NGC 6779

Welcome back to Messier Monday! We continue our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the the globular star cluster known as Messier 56. Enjoy!

In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier kept noting the presence of fixed, diffuse objects in the night sky. In time, he would come to compile a list of approximately 100 of these objects, with the purpose of making sure that astronomers did not mistake them for comets. However, this list – known as the Messier Catalog – would go on to serve a more important function.

One of these objects is Messier 56, a globular star cluster located in the small northern constellation of Lyra, roughly 32,900 light years from Earth. Measuring roughly 84 light-years in diameter, this cluster has an estimated age of 13.70 billion years. It is also relatively easy to spot because of its proximity to well-known asterisms like the celestial Swan, the Northern Cross, and the bright star Vega.

Description:

Spanning about 85 light years in diameter, this incredible ball of stars is moving towards planet Earth at a speed of 145 kilometers per second… yet still remains about 32,900 light-years away. As one of the less dense of the Milky Way’s halo globulars, it is also less dense in variable stars – containing only perhaps a dozen. But out of that twelve, there a very special one… a Cepheid bright enough to be followed with amateur instruments. However, astronomers never stopped looking for the curious – and they found what they were looking for!

NASA/ESA Hubble image of the globular star cluster known as Messier 56. Credit: NASA/ESA/HST/Gilles Chapdelaine

The CURiuos Variables Experiment (CURVE) was performed on M56 in 2008. As P. Pietrukowicz (et al) wrote of the cluster in the accompanying study:

“We surveyed a 6.5’×6.5′ field centered on the globular cluster M56 (NGC 6779) in a search for variable stars detecting seven variables, among which two objects are new identifications. One of the new variables is an RRLyrae star, the third star of that type in M56. Comparison of the new observations and old photometric data for an RV Tauri variable V6 indicates a likely period change in the star. Its slow and negative rate of -0.005±0.003 d/yr would disagree with post-AGB evolution, however this could be a result of blue-loop evolution and/or random fluctuations of the period.”

But could other things exist inside M56? Events, perhaps, like nova? As astronomer Tim O’Brien wrote:

“Classical nova outbursts are the result of thermonuclear explosions on the surface of a white dwarf star in a close binary system. Material from the other star in the system (one not unlike our own sun) falls onto the surface of the white dwarf over thousands of years. The pressure at the base of this layer of accreted material builds up until thermonuclear reactions begin explosively. An Earth’s mass or more of material is ejected from the surface of the white dwarf at speeds of a few hundred to a few thousand kilometres per second. Old novae are therefore surrounded by shells of ejected matter illuminated by the light from the central binary system.”

And as M.E.L. Hopwood (et al.) wrote in a 2000 study:

“We report the possible detection of diffuse X-ray emission in the environment of NGC 6779, and find the emission to be well aligned with the proper motion of the cluster. The position of the emission suggests we are observing heated ISM in the wake of the cluster that could be the result of an interaction between the intracluster medium and the halo gas surrounding it.”

Globular cluster Messier 56 in Lyra. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Hewholooks

History of Observation:

Charles Messier first discovered M56 on January 23rd, 1779. As he wrote of his discovery at the time:

“Nebula without stars, having little light; M. Messier discovered it on the same day as he found the comet of 1779, January 19. On the 23rd, he determined its position by comparing it with the star 2 Cygni, according to Flamsteed: it is near the Milky Way; and close to it is a star of 10th magnitude. M. Messier reported it on the chart of the comet of 1779.”

However, it would be Sir William Herschel who revealed its true nature in 1807. In his private notes he writes: “The 56th of the Connoiss. is a globular cluster of very compressed and very small stars. They are gradually more compressed towards the centre.” His son John would go on to observe it many times, even after cataloging it! His best description reads: “Large; round; very gradually brighter toward the middle. I see the stars which are very small and of different sizes. It fades gradually away to the borders.”

As always, it would be Admiral Smyth who would be perhaps a bit more descriptive when he included in his observing notes:

“A globular cluster, in a splendid field, between the eastern joke of Lyra’s frame and the Swan’s head: it is 5 1/4 deg distant from Beta Lyrae, on the south-east line leading to Beta Cygni, which is about 3 1/2 deg further. This object was first registered by M. Messier in 1778, and, from his imperfect means, described as a nebula of feeble light, without a star. In 1784, it was resolved by Sir William Herschel, who, on gauging, considered its profundity to be of the 344th order.”

Messier 56 location. Credit: IAU/Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

Locating Messier 56:

Finding M56 isn’t too hard since it’s located about half-way between Beta Cygni (Albireo) and Gamma Lyrae. In both binoculars and finder scope, you will see a triangle of stars when progressing from Gamma towards the southeast that will almost point directly at it! Because M56 isn’t particularly large or bright, it does require dark skies – but makes a great object for both binoculars and small telescopes.

Enjoy this pincushion of stars! And here are the quick facts on this Messier Object to help you get started”

Object Name: Messier 56
Alternative Designations: M56, NGC 6779
Object Type: Class X Globular Cluster
Constellation: Lyra
Right Ascension: 19 : 16.6 (h:m)
Declination: +30 : 11 (deg:m)
Distance: 32.9 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 8.3 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 8.8 (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.

Sources:

Messier 55 – the NGC 6809 Globular Star Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! We continue our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at the “Summer Rose Star”, other known as the globular star cluster of Messier 55. Enjoy!

In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier kept noting the presence of fixed, diffuse objects in the night sky. In time, he would come to compile a list of approximately 100 of these objects, with the purpose of making sure that astronomers did not mistake them for comets. However, this list – known as the Messier Catalog – would go on to serve a more important function.

One of these objects is Messier 55, a globular star cluster located in the Sagittarius Constellation. Also known as the “Summer Rose Star”, this cluster is located 17,600 light-years from Earth and spans about 100 light-years in diameter. While it can be seen with binocular, resolving its individual stars can only be done with a small telescope and finderscope.

Description:

Located some 17,300 light years from planet Earth and spanning nearly 100 light years in diameter, this loose appearing ball of stellar points may not seem concentrated – but its home to tens of thousands stars. Does anyone really take the time to count them? You bet. M.J. Irwin and V. Trimble did just that during their 1984 study of Messier 55:

“We report star counts, as a function of position and apparent magnitude, in the rich, relatively open southern globular cluster NGC 6809 (M55). Three AAO 150arcsec plates were scanned by the Automatic Plate Measuring System (APM) at the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, and 20825 images were counted by its associated software. Previously known features of rich globular clusters which appear in the raw counts include a flattening of the luminosity function, increased central concentration of bright stars relative to faint ones (normally interpreted as mass segregation), and mild deviations in radial profile from King models. Crowding of the field, which causes the counting procedure to miss faint stars preferentially near the cluster center, contributes to all of these, and may be responsible for all of the apparent mass segregation, but not for all of the other two effects.”

Globular cluster Messier 55 (M55, or NGC 6809) in the constellation Sagittarius, as imaged by the ESO 3.6-metre telescope on La Silla. Release date: 3 December 2009. Credit: ESO

But just want good does counting the stars do? Well, knowing how many stars are within a given area helps astronomers compute other things as well, like chemical abundances. Said Carlos Alvarez and Eric Sandquist in their 2004 study:

“We have compiled the asymptotic giant, horizontal, and upper red giant branch (AGB, HB, and RGB) stars in the globular cluster M55 (NGC 6809). Using the star counts and the R-parameter we compute the initial helium abundance. The ratio is unusually high for a globular cluster, being almost 2 away from the predicted values, and the highest recorded for a massive globular cluster. We argue that M55’s particular HB morphology and metallicity have produced long-lived HB stars that are not too blue to avoid producing AGB stars. This result hints that we are able to map evolutionary effects on the HB. Finally, although we find no evidence of variations in HB morphology with distance from the center of the cluster, the red HB stars are significantly less concentrated than the majority of HB stars, and the bluest HB stars are more centrally concentrated.”

Studying globular clusters photometrically also gives astronomers the advantage of comparing them to others, to see how each evolves. As P. Richter (et al) indicated in their 1999 study:

“We present Stroemgren CCD photometry for the two galactic globular clusters M55 (NGC 6809) and M22 (NGC 6656). The difference between M55 and M22 may resemble the difference in integral CN band strength between M31 globular clusters and the galactic system. The colour-magnitude diagram of M55 shows the presence of a population of 56 blue-straggler stars that are more centrally concentrated than the red giant-branch stars.”

And viewing globular clusters like Messier 55 in a different wavelength of light other than optical reveals even more stunning details – like the vision of the XMM-Newton. As N.A. Webb (et al) said in their 2006 study:

“Using the new generation of X-ray observatories, we are now beginning to identify populations of close binaries in globular clusters, previously elusive in the optical domain because of the high stellar density. These binaries are thought to be, at least in part, responsible for delaying the inevitable core collapse of globular clusters and their identification is therefore essential in understanding the evolution of globular clusters, as well as being valuable in the study of the binaries themselves. Here, we present observations made with XMM-Newton of globular clusters, in which we have identified neutron star low mass X-ray binaries and their descendants (millisecond pulsars), cataclysmic variables and other types of binaries. We discuss not only the characteristics of these binaries, but also their formation and evolution in globular clusters and their use in tracing the dynamical history of these clusters.”

History of Observation:

M55 was originally discovered by Abbe Lacaille on June 16th, 1752, when he was observing in South Africa. In his notes, he wrote: “It resembles an obscure nucleus of a big comet.” Of course, our own comet hunter, Charles Messier, would search for a good many years before he recovered it to add to his own catalog. By July 24th, 1778, he found the object and recorded it as follows in his notes:

“A nebula which is a whitish spot, of about 6′ extension, its light is even and does not appear to contain any star. Its position has been determined from zeta Sagittarii, with the use of an intermediate star of 7th magnitude. This nebula has been discovered by M. l’Abbe de LaCaille, see Mem. Acad. 1755, p. 194. M. Messier has looked for it in vain on July 29, 1764, as reported in his memoir.”

Messier 55 in Sagittarius. Credit: Hewholooks/Wikipedia Commons

Johann Elert Bode, Dunlop and Caroline Herschel would follow, but it would be Sir William Herschel who would be first to glimpse the resolvability of this great globular cluster. In his private notes he writes:

“A rich cluster of very compressed stars, irregularly round, about 8 minutes long. By the observation of the small 20 feet telescope, which could reach stars 38.99 times as far as the eye, the profundity of this cluster cannot be much less than of the 467th order: I have taken it to be of the 400th order.”

Locating Messier 55:

M55 is by no means easy to find. One of the best ways to locate it is to begin at Theta 1 and Theta 2 Sagittarius, where you’ll find it approximately two finger widths northwest of this pair approximately four degrees. Both Thetas are on the dim side for the unaided eye – about magnitude 4 and 5 respectively, but you’ll recognize them when you find two stars separated by less than half a degree and oriented north/south.

For average binoculars, this will put M55 about a binocular field away to the northwest. For average image correct finderscopes, place the Thetas in the 8:00 position at the edge of the finderscope field and go to the eyepiece with the lowest possible magnification to locate it.

Messier 55 location. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

Although it has a high visual brightness, M55 has low surface brightness so it isn’t suitable to urban or light polluted skies. With dark sky conditions, binoculars will see it as a round hazy patch – like a diffuse comet, while small telescopes can begin to resolve individual stars. Larger aperture telescopes will pick out the fine grain of low magnitude stars quite easily!

Enjoy your own resolvability of this great globular cluster!

And as always, here are the quick facts on this Messier Object:

Object Name: Messier 55
Alternative Designations: M55, NGC 6809
Object Type: Class XI Globular Cluster
Constellation: Sagittarius
Right Ascension: 19 : 40.0 (h:m)
Declination: -30 : 58 (deg:m)
Distance: 17.3 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 6.3 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 19.0 (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.

Sources:

Messier 53 – the NGC 5024 Globular Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at globular cluster known as Messier 53!

During 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 others would not make the same mistake he did. In time, this list (known as the Messier Catalog) would come to include 100 of the most fabulous objects in the night sky.

One of these objects is Messier 53, a globular cluster located in the northern Coma Berenices constellation. Located about 58,000 light years from the Solar System, it is almost equidistant from Galactic Center (about 60,000 light years). As Messier Objects go, it is relatively easy to find since it lies in the same area of the sky as Arcturus, the fourth brightest star in the night sky.

Description:

Heading towards us at a speed of 112 kilometers per second, globular cluster M53 is one of the furthest distant globular clusters in our Milky Way halo and lay almost equally distant between our solar system and the galactic center. This 220 light year diameter ball of stars in tightly compacted towards its core – where low metal is the name of the game and RR Lyra type variable stars once ruled. But recent studies have found that there are some new kids on the block. The blue stragglers…

Messier 53, as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

According to G. Beccari (et al) the population of these definitely appears to violate standard theories of stellar evolution. And there not just a few blues… There’s a whole host of them. As Beccari noted in a 2008 study:

“We used a proper combination of high-resolution and wide-field multiwavelength observations collected at three different telescopes (HST, LBT, and CFHT) to probe the blue straggler star (BSS) population in the globular cluster M53. Almost 200 BSSs have been identified over the entire cluster extension. We have also used this database to construct the radial star density profile of the cluster; this is the most extended and accurate radial profile ever published for this cluster, including detailed star counts in the very inner region. A deviation from the model is noted in the most external region of the cluster. This feature needs to be further investigated in order to address the possible presence of a tidal tail in this cluster.”

Is this possible? Then take a closer look into this research. One where a millisecond pulsar was discovered inside. As S.R. Kulkarni (et al) indicated in a 1991 study:

“Millisecond pulsars are conventionally assumed to be spun up through the action of binary companions, although some subsequently lose their companions and appear as isolated pulsars. Such objects should therefore be more numerous in dense stellar systems. We report here the surprising discovery of two pulsars in low-density globular clusters: one is a single 10-ms pulsar (1639+36) in M13 (NGC 6205), the other a 33-ms pulsar (1310+18) in a 256-d binary in M53 (NGC 5024). Their ages, inferred from their luminosities and constraints on their period derivatives, seem to be 10 9 years, significantly greater than previously reported ages ( ! 10 8 years) of cluster pulsars. The implied birth rate is inconsistent with the conventional two-body tidal capture model, suggesting that an alternative mechanism such as tidal capture between primordial binaries and a reservoir of (hundreds of) primordial neutron stars may dominate the production of tidal binaries in such clusters. The period derivative of PSR1639+36 is surprisingly small, and may be corrupted by acceleration due to the mean gravitational potential of the cluster.”

The Messier 53 globular star cluster. Credit: Ole Nielsen

History of Observation:

This globular cluster was first discovered on February 3, 1775 by Johann Elert Bode, but independently recovered on February 26, 1777 by Charles Messier who writes:

“Nebula without stars discovered below & near Coma Berenices, a little distant from the star 42 in that constellation, according to Flamsteed. This nebula is round and conspicuous. The Comet of 1779 was compared directly with this nebula, & M. Messier has reported it on the chart of that comet, which will be included in the volume of the Academy for 1779. Observed again April 13, 1781: It resembles the nebula which is below Lepus [M79].”

Sir William Herschel would revisit M53, but he did not publish his findings when studying Messier objects. Very seldom did Herschel wax poetic in his writings, but of this particular object he said: “A cluster of very close stars; one of the most beautiful objects I remember to have seen in the heavens. The cluster appears under the form of a solid ball, consisting of small stars, quite compressed into one blaze of light, with a great number of loose ones surrounding it, and distinctly visible in the general mass.”

He would return again in later years to include in his notes: “From what has been said it is obvious that here the exertion of a clustering power has brought the accumulation and artificial construction of these wonderful celestial objects to the highest degree of mysterious perfection.”

The Messier 53 globular cluster. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble

Although it did not touch Sir John Herschel quite so much, M53 also engaged Admiral Smyth who wrote:

“A globular cluster, between Berenice’s tresses and the Virgin’s left hand, with a coarse pair of telescopic stars in the sf [south following, SE] quadrant, and a single one in the sp [south preceding, SW]. This is a brilliant mass of minute stars, from the 11th to the 15th magnitude, and from thence to gleams of star-dust, with stragglers to the np [north preceding, NW], and pretty diffused edges. From the blaze at the centre, it is evidently a highly compressed ball of stars, whose law of aggregation into so dense and compact a mass, is utterly hidden from our imperfect senses. It was enrolled by Messier in 1774 as No. 53, and resolved into stars by Sir W. Herschel. The contemplation of so beautiful an object, cannot but set imagination to work, though the mind may be soon lost in astonishment at the stellar dispositions of the great Creator and Maintainer. Thus, in reasoning by analogy, these compressed globes of stars confound conjecture as to the models in which the mutual attractions are prevented from causing the universal destruction of their system. Sir John Herschel thinks, that no pressure can be propagated through a cluster of discrete stars; whence it would follow, that the permanence of its form must be maintained in a way totally different from that which our reasoning suggest. Before quitting this interesting ball of innumerable worlds, I may mention that it was examined by Sir John Herschel, with Mr. Baily, in the 20-foot reflector; and that powerful instrument showed the cluster with curved appendages of stars, like the short claws of a crab running out from the main body. A line through Delta and Epsilon Virginis, northward, meeting another drawn from Arcturus to Eta Bootis, unite upon this wonderful assemblage; or it is also easily found by its being about 1 deg northeast of 42 Comae Berenices, the alignment of which is already given.”

Locating Messier 53:

M53 can be easily found just about a degree northeast of 42 Alpha Comae Berenices, a visual binary star. To located Alpha, draw a mental line from Arcturus via Eta Bootis where you’ll see it about a fist width west. Alternately you can starhop from Gamma Viginis to Delta and on to Epsilon where you can locate M53 approximately 4 fingerwidths to the north/northeast.

To see this small globular cluster in binoculars will require dark skies and it will appear very small, like a large, out of focus star. In small telescopes it will appear almost cometary – and thus why Messier cataloged these objects! However, with telescopes approaching the 6″ range, resolution will begin and larger telescopes will shatter this gorgeous globular cluster. Requires dark skies.

The location of Messier 53 in the northern Coma Berenices constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

A ball of worlds… What a unique description! May you enjoy your observations as well!

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

Object Name: Messier 53
Alternative Designations: M53, NGC 5024
Object Type: Class V Globular Cluster
Constellation: Coma Berenices
Right Ascension: 13 : 12.9 (h:m)
Declination: +18 : 10 (deg:m)
Distance: 58.0 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 7.6 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 13.0 (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.

Sources:

Messier 51 – the Whirlpool Galaxy

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at that swirling, starry customer, the Whirlpool Galaxy!

During 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 them so that others would not make the same mistake he did. In time, this list (known as the Messier Catalog) would come to include 100 of the most fabulous objects in the night sky.

One of these is the spiral galaxy located in the constellation Canes Venatici known as the Whirlpool Galaxy (aka. Messier 51). Located between 19 and 27 million light-years from the Milky Way, this deep sky object was the very first to be classified as a spiral galaxy. It is also one of the best known galaxies among amateur astronomers, and is easily observable using binoculars and small telescopes.

Description:

Located some 37 million light years away, M51 is the largest member of a small group of galaxies, which also houses M63 and a number of fainter galaxies. To this time, the exact distance of this group isn’t properly known… Even when a 2005 supernova event should have helped astronomers to correctly calculate! As K. Takats stated in a study:

“The distance to the Whirlpool galaxy (M51, NGC 5194) is estimated using published photometry and spectroscopy of the Type II-P supernova SN 2005cs. Both the expanding photosphere method (EPM) and the standard candle method (SCM), suitable for SNe II-P, were applied. The average distance (7.1 +/- 1.2 Mpc) is in good agreement with earlier surface brightness fluctuation and planetary nebulae luminosity function based distances, but slightly longer than the distance obtained by Baron et al. for SN 1994I via the spectral fitting expanding atmosphere method. Since SN 2005cs exhibited low expansion velocity during the plateau phase, similarly to SN 1999br, the constants of SCM were recalibrated including the data of SN 2005cs as well. The new relation is better constrained in the low-velocity regime, that may result in better distance estimates for such SNe.”

Visible light (left) and infrared image (right) of M51, taken by the Kitt Peak National Observatory and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, respectively. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Kennicutt (Univ. of Arizona)/DSS

Of course, one of the most outstanding features of the Whirlpool Galaxy is its beautiful spiral structure – perhaps result of the close interaction between it and its companion galaxy NGC 5195? As S. Beckwith,

“This sharpest-ever image of the Whirlpool Galaxy, taken in January 2005 with the Advanced Camera for Surveys aboard NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, illustrates a spiral galaxy’s grand design, from its curving spiral arms, where young stars reside, to its yellowish central core, a home of older stars. At first glance, the compact galaxy appears to be tugging on the arm. Hubble’s clear view, however, shows that NGC 5195 is passing behind the Whirlpool. The small galaxy has been gliding past the Whirlpool for hundreds of millions of years. As NGC 5195 drifts by, its gravitational muscle pumps up waves within the Whirlpool’s pancake-shaped disk. The waves are like ripples in a pond generated when a rock is thrown in the water. When the waves pass through orbiting gas clouds within the disk, they squeeze the gaseous material along each arm’s inner edge. The dark dusty material looks like gathering storm clouds. These dense clouds collapse, creating a wake of star birth, as seen in the bright pink star-forming regions. The largest stars eventually sweep away the dusty cocoons with a torrent of radiation, hurricane-like stellar winds, and shock waves from supernova blasts. Bright blue star clusters emerge from the mayhem, illuminating the Whirlpool’s arms like city streetlights.”

But there were more surprises just waiting to be found – like a black hole, surrounded by a ring of dust. What makes it even more odd is a secondary ring crosses the primary ring on a different axis, a phenomenon that is contrary to expectations and a pair of ionization cones extend from the axis of the main dust ring. As H. Ford,

“This image of the core of the nearby spiral galaxy M51, taken with the Wide Field Planetary camera (in PC mode) on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, shows a striking , dark “X” silhouetted across the galaxy’s nucleus. The “X” is due to absorption by dust and marks the exact position of a black hole which may have a mass equivalent to one-million stars like the sun. The darkest bar may be an edge-on dust ring which is 100 light-years in diameter. The edge-on torus not only hides the black hole and accretion disk from being viewed directly from earth, but also determines the axis of a jet of high-speed plasma and confines radiation from the accretion disk to a pair of oppositely directed cones of light, which ionize gas caught in their beam. The second bar of the “X” could be a second disk seen edge on, or possibly rotating gas and dust in MS1 intersecting with the jets and ionization cones.”

History of Observation:

The Whirlpool Galaxy was first discovered by Charles Messier on October 13th, 1773 and re-observed again for his records on January 11th, 1774. As he wrote of his discovery in his notes:

“Very faint nebula, without stars, near the eye of the Northern Greyhound [hunting dog], below the star Eta of 2nd magnitude of the tail of Ursa Major: M. Messier discovered this nebula on October 13, 1773, while he was watching the comet visible at that time. One cannot see this nebula without difficulties with an ordinary telescope of 3.5 foot: Near it is a star of 8th magnitude. M. Messier reported its position on the Chart of the Comet observed in 1773 & 1774. It is double, each has a bright center, which are separated 4’35”. The two “atmospheres” touch each other, the one is even fainter than the other.”

It would be his faithful friend and assistant, Pierre Mechain who would discover NGC 5195 on March 21st, 1781. Even though it would be many, many years before it was proven that galaxies were indeed independent systems, historic astronomers were much, much sharper than we gave them credit for. Sir William Herschel would observe M51 many times, but it would be his son John who would be the very first to comment on M51’s scheme:

“This very singular object is thus described by Messier: – “Nebuleuse sans etoiles.” “On ne peut la voir que difficilement avec une lunette ordinaire de 3 1/2 pieds.” “Elle est double, ayant chacune un centre brillant eloigne l’un de l’autre de 4′ 35″. Les deux atmospheres se touchent.” By this description it is evident that the peculiar phenomena of the nebulous ring which encircles the central nucleus had escaped his observation, as might have been expected from the inferior light of his telescopes. My Father describes it in his observations of Messier’s nebulae as a bright round nebula, surrounded by a halo or glory at a distance from it, and accompanied by a companion; but I do not find that the partial subdivision of the ring into two branches throughout its south following limb was noticed by him. This is, however, one of its most remarkable and interesting features. Supposing it to consist of stars, the appearance it would present to a spectator placed on a planet attendant on one of them eccentrically situated towards the north preceding quarter of the central mass, would be exactly similar to that of our Milky Way, traversing in a manner precisely analogous the firmament of large stars, into which the central cluster would be seen projected, and (owing to its distance) appearing, like it, to consist of stars much smaller than those in other parts of the heavens. Can it, then, be that we have here a brother-system bearing a real physical resemblance and strong analogy of structure to our own? Were it not for the subdivision of the ring, the most obvious analogy would be that of the system of Saturn, and the idea of Laplace respecting the formation of that system would be powerfully recalled by this object. But it is evident that all idea of symmetry caused by rotation on an axis must be relinquished, when we consider that the elliptic form of the inner subdivided portion indicates with extreme probability an elevation of that portion above the plane of the rest, so that the real form must be that of a ring split through half its circumference, and having the split portions set asunder at an angle of about 45 deg each to the plane of the other.”

Sketch of M51 by William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse (Lord Rosse) in 1845. Credit: Public Domain

As with other Messier Objects, Admiral Smyth also had some insightful and poetic observations to add. As he wrote of this galaxy in September of 1836:

“We have then an object presenting an amazing display of the uncontrollable energies of the Omnipotence, the contemplation of which compels reason and admiration to yield to awe. On the outermost verge of telescopic reach we perceive a stellar universe similar to that to which we belong, whose vast amplitudes no doubt are peopled with countless numbers of percipient beings; for those beautiful orbs cannot be considered as mere masses of inert matter.

And it is interesting to know that, if there be intelligent existence, an astronomer gazing at our distant universe, will see it, with a good telescope, precisely under the lateral aspect which theirs presents to us. But after all what do we see? Both that wonderful universe, our own, and all which optical assistance has revealed to us, may be only the outliers of a cluster immensely more numerous.

The millions of suns we perceive cannot comprise the Creator’s Universe. There are no bounds to infinitude; and the boldest views of the elder Herschel only placed us as commanding a ken whose radius is some 35,000 times longer than the distance of Sirius from us. Well might the dying Laplace explain: “That which we know is little; that which we know not is immense.”

Lord Rosse would continue on in 1844 with his 6-feet (72-inch) aperture, 53-ft FL “Leviathan” telescope, but he was a man of fewer words.

“The greater part of the observations were made when the eye was affected by lamp-light, which made it difficult to estimate correctly the centre of the nucleus; it was of importance that no time should be unnecessarily spent, and after the lamp had been used a new measure was taken, as it was judged that the object was sufficiently seen. With the brighter stars this would frequently happen before the nucleus was well defined, as all impediments to vision seem to affect nebulae much more than stars the light of which would be estimated as of the same intensity. In the foregoing list the greatest discrepancies are in the measures of bright objects, and this is probably the proper account of it. No stars have been inserted in the sketch which are not in the table of the measurements. The general appearance of the object would have been better given if the minute stars had been put in from the eye-sketch, but it would have created confusion.”

May the stars from this distant island universe fill your eyes!

The Whirlpool Galaxy (Spiral Galaxy M51, NGC 5194), a classic spiral galaxy located in the Canes Venatici constellation, and its companion NGC 5195. Credit: NASA/ESA

Locating Messier 51:

Locating M51 isn’t too hard if you have dark skies, but this particular galaxy is very difficult where light pollution of moonlight is present. To find it, start with Eta UM, the star at the handle of the Big Dipper. In the finderscope or binoculars, you’ll clearly see 24 UM to the southwest. Now, center your optics there and move slowly southwest towards Cor Caroli (Alpha CVn) and you’ll find it!

In locations where skies are clear and dark, it is easy to see spiral structure in even small telescopes, or to make out the galaxy in binoculars – but even a change in sky conditions can hide it from a good location. Rich field telescopes with fast focal lengths to an outstanding job on this galaxy and companion and you may be able to make out the nucleus of both galaxies on a good night from even a bad location.

Object Name: Messier 51
Alternative Designations: M51, NGC 5194, The Whirlpool Galaxy
Object Type: Type Sc Galaxy
Constellation: Canes Venatici
Right Ascension: 13 : 29.9 (h:m)
Declination: +47 : 12 (deg:m)
Distance: 37000 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 8.4 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 11×7 (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.

Sources:

 

Messier 47 – the NGC 2422 Open Star Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at Orion’s Nebula’s “little brother”, the De Marian’s Nebula!

During 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 them so that others would not make the same mistake he did. In time, this list (known as the Messier Catalog) would come to include 100 of the most fabulous objects in the night sky.

One of these objects is the open star cluster known as Messier 47 (NGC 2422), which is located in the constellation of Puppis roughly 1,600 light-years from Earth. Located in proximity to Messier 46, this star cluster is estimated to be 78 million years in age. It is also particularly bright, containing about 50 stars and occupying a region that is about the same size as that of the full Moon.

Description:

Spanning across about 12 light years of space, this clump of around 50 stars began their life around 78 million years ago. Now cruising through space some 1600 light years away from Earth, the group continues to distance itself from our solar system at a speed of 9 kilometers per second. For the most part, Messier 47 is a whole lot like the Pleiades star cluster – its brightest member shining just around magnitude 6 and holding a spectral class B2.

But, here you will also find two orange K giants with luminosity of about 200 times that of the Sun. At M47’s center you’ll find binary star, Sigma 1121, with components of magnitude 7.9 both and separated by 7.4 arc seconds. How do we know that M47 is a lot like the Pleiades? Let’s try X-ray sources and the advances of looking at open clusters far more differently than in optical wavelengths. As M. Barbera (et al) said in a 2002 study:

“We present the results of a ROSAT study of NGC 2422, a southern open cluster at a distance of about 470 pc, with an age close to the Pleiades. Source detection was performed on two observations, a 10-ks PSPC and a 40-ks HRI pointing, with a detection algorithm based on wavelet transforms, particularly suited to detecting faint sources in crowded fields. We have detected 78 sources, 13 of which were detected only with the HRI, and 37 detected only with the PSPC. For each source, we have computed the 0.2-2.0 keV X-ray flux. Using optical data from the literature and our own low-dispersion spectroscopic observations, we find candidate optical counterparts for 62 X-ray sources, with more than 80% of these counterparts being late type stars. The number of sources (38 of 62) with high membership probability counterparts is consistent with that expected for Galactic plane observations at our sensitivity. We have computed maximum likelihood X-ray luminosity functions (XLF) for F and early-G type stars with high membership probability. Heavy data censoring due to our limited sensitivity permits determination of only the high-luminosity tails of the XLFs; the distributions are indistinguishable from those of the nearly coeval Pleiades cluster.”

What else might be hiding inside Messier 47? Try new debris disk candidates. As Nadya Gorlova (et al) indicated in a 2004 study:

“Sixty-three members of the 100 Myr old open cluster M47 (NGC 2422) have been detected with the Spitzer Space Telescope. The Be star V 378 Pup shows an excess both in the near-infrared, probably due to free-free emission from the gaseous envelope. Seven other early-type stars show smaller excesses. Among late-type stars, two show large excesses. P1121 is the first known main-sequence star showing an excess comparable to that of Beta Pic, which may indicate the presence of an exceptionally massive debris disk. It is possible that a major planetesimal collision has occurred in this system, consistent with the few hundred Myr timescales estimated for the clearing of the solar system.”

Iof the star cluster Messier 47 taken by the Wide Field Imager camera on the 2.2-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. Credit: ESO

History of Observation:

Messier 47 was originally discovered before 1654 by Hodierna who described it as:

“[A] Nebulosa between the two dogs”… but it was an observation that wasn’t known about until long after Charles Messier independently recovered it on February 19, 1771. “Cluster of stars, little distant from the preceding; the stars are greater; the middle of the cluster was compared with the same star, 2 Navis. The cluster contains no nebulosity.”

However, it was one of those very rare circumstances when Messier actually made a mistake in his position calculations. Despite this error, the cluster was observed by Caroline Herschel and identified as M47 at least twice in early 1783.

As a consequence of Messier’s position mistake, Sir William Herschel also independently rediscovered it on February 4, 1785, and gave it the number H VIII.38. “A cluster of pretty compressed large [bright] and small [faint] stars. Round. Above [more than] 15′ diameter.” It would be John Herschel, on December 16, 1827, who would be the first to resolve Sigma 1121: “The chief star of a large, pretty rich, straggling cluster. It [the star] is double.”

Atlas Image mosaic obtained of Messier 47 as part of the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS). Credit: UMass/IPAC/Caltech/NASA/NSF

The “Messy” mistake would haunt star catalogs – including both Herschel’s and Dreyer’s for years, until the whole clerical error was cleared up by Owen Gingerich in 1960:

“More explicit reasons for this identification [of M47 with NGC 2422] were given independently in 1959 by T.F. Morris, a member of the Messier Club of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s Montreal Centre. Dr. Morris suggested that an error in signs in the difference between M47 and the comparison star could account for the position. Messier determined the declination of a nebula or cluster by measuring the difference between the object and a comparison star of known declination. The right ascension could be found by recording the times at which the object and the star drifted across a central wire in his telescope’s field; the time interval gives the difference in right ascension. The differences between Messier’s 1770 [actually 1771] position for M47 and his stated comparison star, 2 Navis (now 2 Puppis), if applied with opposite signs, leads to NGC 2422. Clearly, Messier made a mistake in computation!”

May you have Caroline Herschel’s luck finding it!

Locating Messier 47:

There is no simple way of finding Messier 47 in the finderscope of a telescope, but it’s not too hard with binoculars. Begin your hunt a little more than a fist width east/northeast of bright Sirius (Alpha Canis Majoris)… or about 5 degrees (3 finger widths) south of Alpha Monoceros. (It can sometimes by seen with the unaided eye under good conditions as a dim nebulosity.)  There you will find two open clusters that will usually appear in the same average binocular field of view.

Messier 47 location. Image: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

M47 is the westernmost of the pair. It will appear slightly brighter and the stars will be more fewer and more clearly visible. In the finderscope it will appear as if it is resolving, while neighboring eastern M46 will just look like a foggy patch. Because M47’s stars are brighter, it is better suited to less than perfect sky conditions, showing as a compression that begins to resolve in binoculars and will resolves almost fully even a small telescope.

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

Object Name: Messier 47
Alternative Designations: M47, NGC 2422
Object Type: Open Galactic Star Cluster
Constellation: Puppis
Right Ascension: 07 : 36.6 (h:m)
Declination: -14 : 30 (deg:m)
Distance: 1.6 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 5.2 (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 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 44 – The Beehive Cluster (Praesepe)

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at that buzzing nest of stars – the Beehive Cluster!

During 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 them so that others would not make the same mistake he did. In time, this list (known as the Messier Catalog) would come to include 100 of the most fabulous objects in the night sky.

One of these is the Beehive Cluster (aka. Messier 44, or Praesepe), an open star cluster located in the the Cancer constellation. In addition to containing a larger population of stars than most clusters in its vicinity, it is also one of the nearest open clusters to the Solar System – at a distance of 577 light years (177 parsecs). As such, astronomers have been aware of it since Classical Antiquity.

Description:

According to ancient lore, this group of stars (often called the Praesepe) foretold a coming storm if it was not visible in otherwise clear skies. Of course, this came from a time when combating light pollution meant asking your neighbors to dim their candles. But, once you learn where it’s at, it can be spotted unaided even from suburban settings. Hipparchus called it the “Little Cloud,” but not until the early 1600s was its stellar nature revealed.

Close up of the Praesepe (Messier 44) open star cluster. Credit: Wikisky

Believed to be about 550 light-years away, this awesome cluster consists of hundreds of members – with at least four orange giants and five white dwarfs. M44’s age is similar to that of the Pleiades, and it is believed that both clusters have a common origin. Although you won’t see any nebulosity in the Beehive, even the very smallest of binoculars will reveal a swarm of bright stars and large telescopes can resolve down to 350 faint stars.

Messier 44 is the nearest open cluster of its type to our Solar System, and it 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.

Messier 44 is home to 5 red giant stars and a handful of white dwarf stars. But, M44 also contains one peculiar blue star. Among its members, there is the eclipsing binary TX Cancri, the metal line star Epsilon Cancri, and several Delta Scuti variables of magnitudes 7-8, in an early post-main-sequence state. And in all those stars, there’s a lot of other peculiarities to be found!

Atlas Image of the Beehive Cluster obtained as part of the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS). Credit: UMass/IPAC (Caltech)/NASA/NSF

As Sergei M. Andrievsky indicated in a 1998 study:

“We present the results of a spectroscopic study of four blue stragglers from old galactic open cluster NGC 2632 (Praesepe). The LTE analysis based on Kurucz’s atmosphere models and synthetic spectra technique has shown that three stars, including the hottest star of the cluster HD73666, possess an uniform chemical composition: they show a solar-like abundance (or slight overabundance) of iron and an apparent deficiency of oxygen and silicon. Two stars exhibit a remarkable barium overabundance. The chemical composition of their atmospheres is typical for Am stars. One star of our sample does not share such uniform elemental distribution, being generally deficient in metals.”

But is there more hiding in there? Perhaps the kind of stuff that could eventually make planets? According to a 2009 study done by A. Gaspar (et al), this was certainly thought to the be the case:

“Mid-IR excesses indicating debris disks are found for one early-type and for three solar-type stars. The incidence of excesses is in agreement with the decay trend of debris disks as a function of age observed for other cluster and field stars. We show that solar-type stars lose their debris disk 24 um excesses on a shorter timescale than early-type stars. Simplistic Monte Carlo models suggest that, during the first Gyr of their evolution, up to 15%-30% of solar-type stars might undergo an orbital realignment of giant planets such as the one thought to have led to the Late Heavy Bombardment, if the length of the bombardment episode is similar to the one thought to have happened in our solar system.”

In September of 2012, two planets were confirmed to be orbiting around two separate stars in the Beehive Cluster. The finding was significant since the stars were similar to Earth’s Sun, and this was the first instance where exoplanets were found orbiting a Sun-like star within a stellar cluster. These planets were designated as Pr0201b and Pr0211b, both of which are “Hot Jupiters” (i.e. gas giants that orbit close to their stars). In 2016, additional observations showed that the Pr0211 system actually has two planets, the second one being Pr0211-c.

History of Observation:

This beautiful, nearby star cluster has been known since ancient times and played wonderful roles in mythology. Aratos mentioned this object as “Little Mist” as far back as 260 BC, and Hipparchus included this object in his star catalog and called it “Little Cloud” or “Cloudy Star” in 130 BC. Ptolemy mentions it as one of seven “nebulae” he noted in his Almagest, and describes it as “The Nebulous Mass in the Breast (of Cancer)”.

According to Burnham, it appeared on Johann Bayer’s chart (about 1600 AD) as “Nubilum” (“Cloudy” Object). It was even resolved by Galileo in 1609 who said: “The nebula called Praesepe contains not one star only but a mass of more than 40 small stars. We have noted 36 besides the Aselli (Gamma and Delta Cancri).”

Messier 44 was partly resolved by Orion nebula’s discoverer, Peiresc, in 1611, who said, “Nebula was seen in the vicinity of Jupiter to the east. in which more than 15 stars have been counted.” and added to Hevelius’ catalog as number 291. De Cheseaux charted it as his number 11 and Bode as his number 20. Small wonder Messier felt the need to add his own numbers to it as well when he recorded:

“At simple view [with the naked eye], one sees in Cancer a considerable nebulosity: this is nothing but a cluster of many stars which one distinguishes very well with the help of telescopes, and these stars are mixed up at simple view [to the unaided eye] because of their great proximity. The position in right ascension of one of the stars, which Flamsteed has designated with the letter c, reduced to March 4, 1769, should be 126d 50′ 30″, for its right ascension, and 20d 31′ 38″ for its northern declination. This position is deduced from that which Flamsteed has given in his catalog.”

Image of M44 Beehive cluster taken by the author, Miguel Garcia. Credit: Intihuatana (Miguel Garcia)

While Sir William Herschel would ignore it and Caroline Herschel would only write that she “observed it”, John Herschel would go on to give it an NGC designation and Admiral Smyth would sing its poetic praises. Is it possible that watching this star cluster could help fortell the weather? If you believe the words of Aratos, it just might.

“Watch, too, the Manger. Like a faint mist in the North it plays the guide beneath Cancer. Around it are borne two faintly gleaming stars, not far apart nor very near but distant to the view a cubit.s length, one on the North, while the other looks towards the South. They are called the Asses [in the constellation Cancer], and between them is the Manger. On a sudden, when all the sky is clear, the Manger wholly disappears, while the stars that go on either side seem nearer drawn to one another: not slight then is the storm with which the fields are deluged. If the Manger darken and both stars remain unaltered, they herald rain. But if the Ass to the North of the Manger shine feebly through a faint mist, while the Southern Ass is gleaming bright, expect wind from the South: but if in turn the Southern Ass is cloudy and the Northern bright, watch for the North wind.”

And watch for a swarm of incredible starlight!

Locating Messier 44:

Messier 44 is so bright that it easily shows to the unaided eye as a nebulous patch just above the conjunction of the faint, upside down “Y” asterism of the Cancer constellation. However, not everyone lives where dark skies are a rule – so try using both Pollux and Procyon to form the base of an imaginary triangle. Now aim your binoculars or finderscope near the point of the apex to discover M44 – the Beehive.

The location of Messier 44 in the Cancer constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

Since Messier 44 is about a degree and a half in diameter, it will require that you use your lowest magnification eyepiece in a telescope, and it is very well suited to binoculars of all sizes. Because its major stars are also quite bright, it stands up to urban sky and moonlight conditions, but many more stars are revealed with higher magnification and darker skies. Because M44 is very near the ecliptic plane, you’ll often find a planet or the Moon mixing it up with the stars!

Object Name: Messier 44
Alternative Designations: M44, NGC 2632, Beehive Cluster, The Praesepe, The Manger
Object Type: Open Galactic Star Cluster
Constellation: Cancer
Right Ascension: 08 : 40.1 (h:m)
Declination: +19 : 59 (deg:m)
Distance: .577 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 3.7 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 95.0 (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.

Sources:

Messier 42 – The Orion Nebula

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at that Great and most brightest of nebulae – the Orion Nebula!

During 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 them so that others would not make the same mistake he did. In time, this list (known as the Messier Catalog) would come to include 100 of the most fabulous objects in the night sky.

One of these objects is the Orion Nebula, a diffuse nebula situated just south of Orion’s Belt in the Orion constellation. Located between 1,324 and 1,364 light years distant, it is the closest massive star forming region to Earth. Little wonder then why it  is the brightest nebula in the night sky and can be seen on a clear evening with the naked eye.

Description:

Known as “The Great Orion Nebula,” let’s learn what makes it glow. M42 is a great cloud of gas spanning more than 20,000 times the size of our own solar system and its light is mainly florescent. For most observers, it appears to have a slight greenish color – caused by oxygen being stripped of electrons by radiation from nearby stars.

A pair of binoculars will make the “Curlicue” pop in Orion’s Belt. Although the stars aren’t related, they form a delightfully curvy line-of-sight pattern. Credit: Bob King

At the heart of this immense region is an area known as the “Trapezium” – its four brightest stars form perhaps the most celebrated multiple star system in the night sky. The Trapezium itself belongs to a faint cluster of stars now approaching main sequence and resides in an area of the nebula known as the “Huygenian Region” (named after 17th century astronomer and optician Christian Huygens who first observed it in detail).

Buried amidst the bright ribbons and curls of this cloud of predominately hydrogen gas are many star forming regions. Appearing like “knots,” these Herbig-Haro objects are thought to be stars in the earliest stages of condensation. Associated with these objects are a great number of faint red stars and erratically luminous variables – young stars, possibly of the T Tauri type.

There are also “flare stars,” whose rapid variations in brightness mean an ever changing view. “Orion may seem very peaceful on a cold winter night, but in reality it holds very massive, luminous stars that are destroying the dusty gas cloud from which they formed,” said Tom Megeath, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

While studying M42, you’ll note the apparent turbulence of the area – and with good reason. The “Great Nebula’s” many different regions move at varying speeds. The rate of expansion at the outer edges may be caused by radiation from the very youngest stars present. Said Massimo Roberto, an astronomer at the Space Science Telescope Institute in Baltimore:

“In this bowl of stars we see the entire formation history of Orion printed into the features of the nebula: arcs, blobs, pillars and rings of dust that resemble cigar smoke. Each one tells a story of stellar winds from young stars that impact the environment and the material ejected from other stars.”

The star Alnitak and Flame Nebula in Orion. Credit and copyright: César Cantú.

Although M42 may have been luminous for as long as 23,000 years, it is possible that new stars are still forming, while others were ejected by gravitation – known as “runaway” stars. A tremendous X-ray source (2U0525-06) is quite near the Trapezium and hints at the possibility of a black hole present within M42. The Trapezium’s stellar winds also are responsible for the formation of stars inside the nebula – their shock waves compressing the medium and igniting starbirth.

“When you look closely, you see that the nebula is filled with hundreds of visible shock waves,” said Bob O’Dell, an astronomer from Vanderbilt University. O’Dell was fortunate enough to use Hubble to map Orion’s stellar winds and create a map of two of Orion’s three star-forming regions… Regions where the winds have been blowing continuously for nearly 1,500 years!

What else have we learned about the Great Orion nebula in recent years? Try the discovery of 13 drifting gas planets. These rare, “free-floating” objects were confirmed by Patrick Roche of the University of Oxford and Philip Lucas of the University of Hertfordshire just before the turn of the century. They were found with the Hubble Space Telescope while looking for faint stars and brown dwarfs. As he explained:

“The objects are likely to be large gas planets similar in size to Jupiter and consisting primarily of hydrogen and helium. From the measured brightness and the known distance to the Orion nebula, we knew they did not have enough material for any nuclear processing in their interiors.”

Orion's Horsehead Nebula Credit & Copyright Ryan Steinberg & Family, Adam Block, NOAO, AURA, NSF
Orion’s Horsehead Nebula Credit & Copyright Ryan Steinberg & Family, Adam Block, NOAO, AURA, NSF

Chances are very good these planets may be failed stars – much like our own Jupiter. But these planets don’t orbit a star the same way our solar system’s planets orbit the Sun… they simply roam around. Dr. Roche said that the 13 objects “probably formed in a different way from the planets in our solar system” in that they were not made “out of the residue of material left over from the birth of the sun.”

Instead, they formed “like stars via the collapse of a cloud of cold gas,” explained Lucas. “But they possess most of the physical properties and structure of gas giant planets,” added Lucas.

History of Observation:

Messier 42 was possibly discovered 1610 by Nicholas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc and was recorded by by Johann Baptist Cysatus, Jesuit astronomer, in 1611. For fans of the great Galileo, he was the first to mention the Trapezium cluster in 1617, but did not see the nebula. (However, do not despair! For it is my belief that he was simply using too much magnification and therefore could not see the extent of what he was looking at.)

The first known drawing of the Orion nebula was created by Giovanni Batista Hodierna, and after all of these documents were lost, the Orion nebula was once again credited to Christian Huygens 1656, documented by Edmund Halley in 1716. It then went on to Jean-Jacques d’Ortous de Mairan in his nebulae descriptions, to be added by Philippe Loys de Chéseaux to his list, expounded by Guillaume Legentil in his review.

Horsehead Nebula at the Orion Credit & Copyright Adam Block, Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter, U. Arizona
Horsehead Nebula at the Orion. Credit & Copyright Adam Block, Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter, U. Arizona

At last, Charles Messier added the nebula to his catalog on March 4, 1769. As he wrote of the stunning objectL

“The drawing of the nebula in Orion, which I present at the Academy, has been traced with the greatest care which is possible for me. The nebula is represented there as I have seen it several times with an excellent achromatic refractor of three and a half feet focal length, with a triple lens, of 40 lignes [3.5 inches] aperture, and which magnifies 68 times. This telescope made in London by Dollond, belongs to M. President de Saron. I have examined that nebula with the greatest attention, in an entirely serene sky, as follows: February 25 & 26, 1773. Orion in the Meridian. March 19, between 8 & 9 o’clock in the evening. [March] 23, between 7 & 8 o’clock. The 25th & 26th of the same month, at the same time. These combined observations and the drawings brought together, have enabled me to represent with care and precision its shape and its appearances.

“This drawing will serve to recognize, in following times, if this nebula is subject to any changes. There may be already cause to presume this; for, if one compares this drawing with those given by MM. Huygens, Picard, Mairan and by le Gentil, one finds there such a change that one would have difficulty to figure out that this was the same. I will make these observations in the following with the same telescope and the same magnification. In the figure which I give, the circle represents the field of the telescope in its true aperture; it contains the Nebula and thirty Stars of different magnitudes. The figure is inverted, as it is shown in the instrument; one recognizes there also the extension and the limits of this nebula, the sensible difference between its clearest or most apparent light with that which merges gradually with the background of the sky. The jet of light, directed from the star no. 8 to the star no. 9, passing by a small star of the 10th magnitude, which is extremely rare, as well as the light directed to the star no. 10, and that which is opposite, where there are the eight stars contained in the nebula; among these stars, there is one of the eighth magnitude, six of the tenth, and the eighth of the eleventh magnitude. M. de Mairan, in his Traite de l’Aurore Boreale, speaks of the star no. 7. I report it in my drawing below such as it is at present, and as I have seen; so to speak surrounded by a thin nebulosity. In the night of October 14 to 15, 1764, in a serene sky, I determined with regard to Theta in the nebula, the positions of the more apparent stars in right ascension and declination, by the means of a micrometer adapted to a Newtonian telescope of 4 1/2 feet length. These stars are numbered up to ten; I have reported them in the drawing containing the field of the telescope; and an eleventh of them is beyond the circle. The positions of the stars which are not marked with numbers have been fixed by estimating their relative alignments. One will know easily also the magnitude of the Stars by the model which I have reported on the figure. Those of the tenth and the eleventh magnitude are absolutely telescopic and very difficult to find.”

However, it would be Sir William Herschel who would devote much love, time, and attention to the Great Orion Nebula – even though his findings would never be made public. As a true master observer, he had quite a talent for sensing what truly might lay beyond the boundary:

“In 1783, I reexamined the nebulous star, and found it to be faintly surrounded with a circular glory of whitish nebulosity, faintly joined to the great nebula. About the latter end of the same year I remarked that it was not equally surrounded, but most nebulous toward the south. In 1784 I began to entertain an opinion that the star was not connected with the nebulosity of the great nebula in Orion, but was one of those which are scattered over that part of the heavens. In 1801, 1806, and 1810 this opinion was fully confirmed, by the gradual change which happened in the great nebula, to which the nebulosity surrounding this star belongs. For the intensity of the light about the nebulous star had by this time been considerably reduced, by attenuation or dissipation of nebulous matter; and it seemed now to be pretty evident that the star is far behind the nebulous matter, and that consequently its light in passing through it is scattered and deflected, so as to produce the appearance of a nebulous star. A similar phenomenon may be seen whenever a planet or a star of the 1st or 2nd magnitude happens to be involved in haziness; for a diffused circular light will then be seen, to which, but in a much inferior degree, that which surrounds this nebulous star bears a great resemblance.”

But of course, the great Sir William Herschel also had nights from his many notes on M42 where he simply said: “The nebula in Orion which I saw by the front-view was so glaring and beautiful that I could not think of taking any place of its extent.”

Locating Messier 42:

Finding Messier 42 is very easy from a dark sky location by centering on the glowing region in the center of Orion’s “sword”. However, from urban locations, these stars might not be visible, so aim your binoculars or telescope about a fist width south of the three prominent stars that make the asterism known as Orion’s Belt. It’s a very bright and large object well suited to all sky conditions and instruments!

This chart shows the location of Messier 78 in the famous constellation of Orion (The Hunter). Credit: ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope

Remember to use low power to get the full majesty of M42 and to increase magnification to study various regions. And trust us when we tell you, you are in for some pretty awesome viewing!

And of course, here are the quick facts on Messier 42 to help you get started:

Object Name: Messier 42
Alternative Designations: M42, NGC 1976, The Great Orion Nebula, Home of the Trapezium
Object Type: Emission and Reflection Nebula with Open Galactic Star Cluster
Constellation: Orion
Right Ascension: 05 : 35.4 (h:m)
Declination: -05 : 27 (deg:m)
Distance: 1.3 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 4.0 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 85×60 (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.

Sources:

Messier 41 – the NGC 2287 Open Star Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the double star known as Messier 41. Enjoy!

During 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 them so that others would not make the same mistake he did. In time, this list (known as the Messier Catalog) would come to include 100 of the most fabulous objects in the night sky.

One of these objects is the open star cluster known as Messier 41 (aka. M41, NGC 2287). Located in the Canis Major constellation – approximately 4,300 light years from Earth – this cluster lies just four degrees south of Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Like most open clusters, it is relatively young – 190 million years old – and contains over 100 stars in a region measuring 25 to 26 light years in diameter.

Description:

Running away from us at a speed of about 34 kilometers per second, this field of about 100 stars measures about 25 light years across. Born about 240 million years ago, it resides in space approximately 2300 light years away from our solar system. Larger aperture telescopes will reveal the presence of many red (or orange) giant stars and the hottest star in this group is a spectral type A.

View of the night sky in North Carolina, showing the constellations of Orion, Hyades, Canis Major and Canis Minor. Credit: NASA

As G.L.H. Harris (et al) explained in a 1993 study:

“We have obtained photoelectric UBV photometry for 100 stars, uvbyb photometry for 39 stars and MK spectral types for 80 stars in the field of NGC 2287. After combination with data from other sources, several interesting cluster properties are apparent. Both the UBV and uvbyb photometry point to a small but nonzero reddening, while our spectral types confirm previous results indicating a high binary frequency for the cluster. Based on our spectral and photometric data for the cluster members, we find a minimum binary frequency of 40% and discuss the possibility that the results may imply a binary frequency closer to 80%. The cluster age is found to be based on both the main-sequence turnoff and the red giant distribution; the width of the turn up region can probably be explained by a combination of duplicity and a range in stellar rotation.”

But there’s more than just red giant stars and various spectral types to be found hiding in Messier 41. There’s at least two white dwarf stars, too. As P.D Dobbie explained in a 2009 study:

“[W]e use our estimates of their cooling times together with the cluster ages to constrain the lifetimes and masses of their progenitor stars. We examine the location of these objects in initial mass-final mass space and find that they now provide no evidence for substantial scatter in initial mass-final mass relation (IFMR) as suggested by previous investigations. This form is generally consistent with the predictions of stellar evolutionary models and can aid population synthesis models in reproducing the relatively sharp drop observed at the high mass end of the main peak in the mass distribution of white dwarfs.”

Messier 41 and Collinder 121. Image: Wikisky

As you view Messier 41, you’ll be impressed with its wide open appearance… and knowing it’s simply what happens to star clusters as they get passed around our galaxy. As Giles Bergond (et al.) stated in their 2001 study:

“Taking into account observational biases, namely the galaxy clustering and differential extinction in the Galaxy, we have associated these stellar overdensities with real open cluster structures stretched by the galactic gravitational field. As predicted by theory and simulations, and despite observational limitations, we detected a general elongated (prolate) shape in a direction parallel to the galactic Plane, combined with tidal tails extended perpendicularly to it. This geometry is due both to the static galactic tidal field and the heating up of the stellar system when crossing the Disk. The time varying tidal field will deeply affect the cluster dynamical evolution, and we emphasize the importance of adiabatic heating during the Disk-shocking. During the 10-20 Z-oscillations experienced by a cluster before its dissolution in the Galaxy, crossings through the galactic Disk contribute to at least 15% of the total mass loss. Using recent age estimations published for open clusters, we find a destruction time-scale of about 600 million years for clusters in the solar neighborhood.”

That means we’ve only got another 360 million years to observe it before it’s completely gone (though some estimates place it at about 500 million). Either way, this star cluster is destined to disappear, perhaps before we are!

History of Observation:

Messier 41 was “possibly” recorded by Aristotle about 325 B.C. as a patch in the Milky Way… quite understandable since it is very much within unaided eye visibility from a dark sky location. Said Aristotle:

“.. some of the fixed stars have tails. And for this we need not rely only on the evidence of the Egyptians who say they have observed it; we have observed it also ourselves. For one of the stars in the thigh of the Dog had a tail, though a dim one: if you looked hard at it the light used to become dim, but to less intent glance it was brighter.”

Messier 41 and Sirius. Image: Wikisky

However, Giovanni Batista Hodierna was the first to catalog it in 1654, and the star cluster became a bit more astronomically known when John Flamsteed independently found it again on February 16, 1702. Doing his duty, Charles Messier also logged it:

“In the night of January 16 to 17, 1765, I have observed below Sirius and near the star Rho of Canis Major a star cluster; when examining it with a night refractor, this cluster appeared nebulous; instead, there is nothing but a cluster of small stars. I have compared the middle with the nearest known star; and I found its right ascension of 98d 58′ 12″, and its declination 20d 33′ 50″ north.”

Following suit, other historical astronomers also observed M41 – including Sir John Herschel to include it in the NGC catalog. While none found it particularly thrilling… their notes range from a “coarse collection of stars” to “very large, bright, little compressed”, perhaps you will feel much differently about this easy, bright target!

Locating Messier 41:

Finding Messier 41 isn’t very difficult for binoculars and small telescopes – all you have to know is the brightest star in the northern hemisphere, Sirius, and south! Simply aim your optics at Sirius and move due south approximately four degrees. That’s about one standard field of view for binoculars, about one field of view for the average telescope finderscope and about 6 fields of view for the average wide field, low power eyepiece.

The location of Messier 41 in the Canis Major constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine/Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg

Because Messier 41 is a large star cluster, remember to use lowest magnification to get the best effect. Higher magnification can always be used once the star cluster is identified to study individual members. M41 is quite bright and easily resolved and makes a wonderful target for urban skies and moonlit nights!

Because you understand what’s there…

Object Name: Messier 41
Alternative Designations: M41, NGC 2287
Object Type: Open Galactic Star Cluster
Constellation: Canis Major
Right Ascension: 06 : 46.0 (h:m)
Declination: -20 : 44 (deg:m)
Distance: 2.3 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 4.5 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 38.0 (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.

Sources:

Messier 39 – The NGC 7092 Open Star Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the open galactic star cluster known as Messier 39. Enjoy!

During 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 them so that others would not make the same mistake he did. In time, this list (known as the Messier Catalog) would come to include 100 of the most fabulous objects in the night sky.

One of these objects is known as Messier 39, an open star cluster located in the direction of the Cygnus constellation. Because of its proximity to Deneb and its size – it is actually larger in the night sky than a full Moon – it is easily observed using binoculars and small, low magnification telescopes.

Description:

Positioned only about 800 light years away from our solar system, this 300 million year old group of about 30 stars may look like they are spread fairly far apart in the sky. But as clusters go, they are close, really close! This group is gathered in space in only a 7 light year neighborhood! All of its stars are main sequence and the very brightest of them are just about to evolve into the red giant star phase.

In a study done by Jean Claude Mermilliod (et al), they conducted a long-term monitoring of solar-type dwarfs with CORAVEL – a study which took 19 years. While most individual radial velocities were never published – apart from a small number of spectroscopic binaries – the stars themselves and their properties were well documented in the works of B. Uyaniker and T. L. Landecker of the National Research Council, Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics.

Low-magnification image of Messier 39. Credit: Christian van Endern

As Uyaniker and Landecker claimed in their 2002 study, “A Highly Ordered Faraday-Rotation Structure in the Interstellar Medium“:

“We describe a Faraday rotation structure in the interstellar medium detected through polarimetric imaging at 1420 MHz from the Canadian Galactic Plane Survey (CGPS). The structure, at l = 918,b = -25, has an extent of ~2°, within which polarization angle varies smoothly over a range of ~100°. Polarized intensity also varies smoothly, showing a central peak within an outer shell. This region is in sharp contrast to its surroundings, where low-level chaotic polarization structure occurs on arcminute scales. The Faraday rotation structure has no counterpart in radio total intensity and is unrelated to known objects along the line of sight, which include a Lynds Bright Nebula, LBN 416, and the star cluster M39 (NGC 7092). It is interpreted as a smooth enhancement of electron density. The absence of a counterpart, in either optical emission or total intensity, establishes a lower limit to its distance. An upper limit is determined by the strong beam depolarization in this direction. At a probable distance of 350 ± 50 pc, the size of the object is 10 pc, the enhancement of electron density is 1.7 cm-3, and the mass of ionized gas is 23 M. It has a very smooth internal magnetic field of strength 3 UG, slightly enhanced above the ambient field. G91.8-2.5 is the second such object to be discovered in the CGPS, and it seems likely that such structures are common in the magneto-ionic medium.”

So where do these gases come from? Perhaps they are there all along. As Yu N. Efremov and T.G. Sitnik wrote in their 1988 study:

“It is found that about 90% of young clusters o-b2 and OB-associations situated within 3 kpc from the Sun are united into complexes with diameters from 150 to 700 pc. Almost all complexes contain giant molecular clouds with masses. A number of complexes (mostly large ones)-are connected with giant H I clouds; a few of small complexes are situated in the H I-caverns. Older (>b2) cluster avoid the regions occupied by young star groups. Complexes often have an hierarchic structure; some neighbouring complexes may be united into supercomplexes with diameters about 1.5 kpc.”

Does this mean it’s possible that M39 could be more than one cluster combined? As H. Schneider wrote in his 1987 study:

“Early-type stars up to 12.0 mag and spectral type F2 in two young northern clusters were investigated by means of Stromgren and H-beta photometry. The distance and reddening of the clusters were estimated, and the membership of the stars discussed. In the case of NGC 7039 a distance of 675 pc and a color excess of E(b-y) = 0.056 were found; the respective values for NGC 7063 were 635 pc and E(b-y) = 0.062. The reality of NGC 7039 is somewhat puzzling: it seems that there exists a loose star aggregate called NGC 7039, containing about six to nine stars, and in the background another cluster at a distance of about 1500 pc. Besides this, variable reddening across the cluster area is probable.”

Atlas Image mosaic of Messier 39, obtained as part of the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS). Credit: NASA/NSF/IPAC/Caltech/Univ. of Mass.

History of Observation:

While it is possible this bright star cluster was remarked upon by Aristotle as a cometary appearing object about 325 BC, and it is also possible that it may have been discovered by Le Gentil in 1750, the fact remains M39 is most frequently attributed to be an original discovery of Charles Messier. As he recorded in his notes:

“In the night of October 24 to 25, 1764, I observed a cluster of stars near the tail of Cygnus: One distinguishes them with an ordinary (nonachromatic) refractor of 3 and a half feet; they don’t contain any nebulosity; its extension can occupy a degree of arc. I have compared it with the star Alpha Cygni, and I have found its position in right ascension of 320d 57′ 10″, and its declination of 47d 25′ 0″ north.”

Because Sir William Herschel did not publish his findings on Messier’s works, very few have read his observations of the object -“Consists of such large and straggling stars that I could not tell where it began nor where it ended. It cannot be called a cluster.” However, it would later go on to receive a New General Catalog (NGC) designation by Sir John Herschel who would describe it as “A star of 7th mag [position taken], one of a large loose cluster of stars of 7th to 10th magnitude; very coarsely scattered, and filling many fields.”

Even as accomplished as historic observers were, they sometimes didn’t always do the right thing. In the case of Messier 39, it is so close to us that it appears large dimensionally in the sky – and therefore needs less magnification instead of more to be properly studied as a whole. However, don’t always put away the magnfication, because as Admiral Smyth reports:

“A loose cluster, or rather splashy galaxy field of stars, in a very rich visinity between the Swan’s tail and the Lizard, due south of Beta Cephei, and east-north-east of Deneb [Alpha Cygni]. This was picked up by Messier in 1764, with his 3 1/2 foot telescope, and registered as being a degree in diameter. Among them there are several pairs, of which a couple were slightly estimated; the first being the brightest star (7m) and its comes, and the second a pretty pair of 10th-magnitudes.”

The location of Messier 39 in the Cygnus constellation. Credit: IAU/Sky & Telescope magazine/Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

Locating Messier 39:

This coarse open star cluster is easily found in small optics. Start first by identifying the very large constellation of Cygnus and pinpointing its brightest, northernmost star. Aim you binoculars there. You’ll find M39 about 9 degrees east and a bit north of Deneb (Alpha Cygni). If at first you don’t succeed, try looking at Deneb from a dark sky location and see if you can spot a small, hazy patch about a fist width away to the east. There’s your star cluster!

It will also show easily in the telescope finderscope as a hazy patch and even begin resolution with larger aperture finders. M39 is very well suited to light polluted skies and moonlit observing and will even hold up well to less than ideal sky conditions. Small instruments will easily see a bright handful of stars while larger telescopes will resolve many more faint members and pairs. Because of its large apparent size, you’ll enjoy viewing M39 far more if you use the least amount of magnification possible.

Enjoy this star-studded cluster and the great Milky Way field that frames it!

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

Object Name: Messier 39
Alternative Designations: M39, NGC 7092
Object Type: Galactic Open Star Cluster
Constellation: Cygnus
Right Ascension: 21 : 32.2 (h:m)
Declination: +48 : 26 (deg:m)
Distance: 0.825 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 4.6 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 32.0 (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.

Sources: