The Nearby Star Clusters Come from Only Three Places

The most well-known open cluster is probably the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. The Japanese call it the Subaru cluster, and keen observers might recognize its pattern on the Subaru automobile logo. New research shows that the Pleiades and more than 150 other star clusters all originated in only three star-forming regions. Image: By NASA, ESA, AURA/Caltech, Palomar Observatory., Public Domain,

Many astronomy-interested people know of the Hyades and the Pleiades. They’re star clusters in the Taurus constellation. They’re two out of a handful of star clusters that are visible to the unaided eye under dark sky conditions.

It turns out that these clusters, along with more than 150 other nearby clusters, all originated in only three massive star-forming regions.

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How Many Stars Formed Together With the Sun in Our Stellar Nebula?

This is a two-panel mosaic of part of the Taurus Giant Molecular Cloud, the nearest active star-forming region to Earth. The darkest regions are where stars are being born. Inside these vast clouds, complex chemicals are also forming. Image Credit: Adam Block /Steward Observatory/University of Arizona

Even though our Sun is now a solitary star, it still has siblings somewhere in the Milky Way. Stars form in massive clouds of gas called Molecular Clouds. When the Sun formed about five billion years ago, other stars would’ve formed from the same cloud, creating a star cluster.

How many other stars formed in the cluster?

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Hubble Spots Two Open Clusters. One is Also an Emission Nebula

The open cluster NGC 1858, seen in this Hubble image, contains stars of different ages. Image Credit: NASA, ESA and G. Gilmore (University of Cambridge); Processing: Gladys Kober (NASA/Catholic University of America)

Open star clusters are groups of stars in loosely-bound gravitational associations. The stars are further apart than the stars in their cousins, the globular clusters. The weak gravity from the loose clusters means open clusters take on irregular shapes. They usually contain only a few thousand stars.

The Hubble Space Telescope captured images of two clusters in the Large Magellanic Cloud.

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Messier 26 – The NGC 6694 Open Star Cluster

Messier 26 and Delta Scuti. Credit: WIkisky

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at Messier 26 open star cluster. Enjoy!

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

One of these objects is Messier 26, an open star cluster located about 5,000 light years from the Earth in the direction of the Scutum Constellation. While somewhat faint compared to other objects that share its section of the sky, this star field remains a source of mystery to astronomers, thanks to what appears to be a low-density star field at its nucleus.


When this cloud of stars formed some 89 million years ago, it was probably far more compact than today’s size of a 22 light year span. At a happy distance of about 5,000 light years from our solar system, we can’t quite see into the nucleus to determine just how dense it may actually be because of an obscuring cloud of interstellar matter.

The Open Star Cluster, Messier 26. Credit: Wikisky
Image of the Messier 26 Open Star Cluster. Credit: Wikisky

However, we do know a little bit about the stars contained within it. As astronomer James Cuffey suggested in a paper titled The Galactic Clusters NGC 6649 and NGC 6694“, which appeared in July 1940 issue of The Astrophysical Journal:

“The relations between color and apparent magnitude show that NGC 6694 contains a well-defined main sequence and a slight indication of a giant branch. A zone of low star density 3′ from the center of NGC 6694 is noted. The ratio between general and selective absorption is estimated from the available data on red color indices in obscured clusters. Although uncertain in many cases, the results tend to confirm the ratio predicted by the law of scattering.”

However boring a field of stars may look upon first encounter, studies are important to our understanding how our galaxy evolved and the timeline incurred. As Kayla Young of the Manhasset Science Research team said:

“Star Clusters are unique because all of the stars in the cluster essentially have the same age and are roughly the same distance from Earth. Therefore, the purpose was to determine if a correlation exists between mean absolute magnitude and age of a star cluster. The absolute magnitude for star cluster NGC 6694 was calculated to be about 1.34 + .9. Using the B-V (Photometric Analysis) data ages were also calculated. After a scatter plot was created, the line of best fit demonstrated an exponential relation between the age and absolute magnitude.”

The M26 Open Star Cluster. Credit: NOAO/AURA/NSF
The M26 Open Star Cluster. Credit: NOAO/AURA/NSF

History of Observation:

Messier 26 was first observed by Charles Messier himself on June 20th, 1764. As he wrote of the discovery at the time:

“I discovered another cluster of stars near Eta and Omicron in Antinous [now Alpha and Delta Scuti] among which there is one which is brighter than the others: with a refractor of three feet, it is not possible to distinguish them, it requires to employ a strong instrument: I saw them very well with a Gregorian telescope which magnified 104 times: among them one doesn’t see any nebulosity, but with a refractor of 3 feet and a half, these stars don’t appear individually, but in the form of a nebula; the diameter of that cluster may be 2 minutes of arc. I have determined its position with regard to the star o of Antinous, its right ascension is 278d 5′ 25″, and its declination 9d 38′ 14″ south.”

Later, Bode would report a few stars with nebulosity – a field that simply wouldn’t resolve to his telescope. William Herschel would spare it but only a brief glance, saying: “A cluster of scattered stars, not rich.” While John Herschel would later go on to class it with its NGC designation, it was Admiral Smyth who would most aptly describe M26 for the true galactic cluster we know it to be. As he wrote upon viewing it in April of 1835:

“A small and coarse, but bright, cluster of stars, preceding the left foot of Antinous, in a fine condensed part of the Milky Way; and it follows 2 Aquilae by only a half degree. The principle members of this group lie nearly in a vertical position with the equatorial line, and the place is that of a small pair in the south, or upper portion of the field [in telescope]. This neat double star is of the 9th and 10th magnitudes, with an angle [PA] = 48 deg, and is followed by an 8th [mag star], the largest [brightest] in the assemblage, by 4s. Altogether the object is pretty, and must, from all analogy, possess affinity among its various components; but the collocation and adjustment of these wondrous firmamental clusters, and their probable distances, almost stun our present faculties. There are many astral splashes in this crowded district of the Galaxy, among which fine specimens of what may be termed luminiferous ether, are met with.”

The location of Messier 26 within the Scutum Constellation. Credit: IAU/Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)
The location of Messier 26 within the Scutum Constellation. Credit: IAU/Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

Locating Messier 26:

Finding Messier 26 in binoculars is easy as far as location goes – but not so easy distinguishing it from the starfield. Begin with the constellation of Aquila and its brightest star – Alpha. As you move southwest, count the stars down the Eagle’s back. When you reach three you are at the boundary of the constellation of Scutum. While maps make Scutum’s stars appear easy to find, they really aren’t.

The next most easily distinguished star in the line in Alpha Scutii. Aim your binoculars or finderscope there and you’ll see northern Epsilon and southern Delta to the east. Messier 26 is slightly southeast of Delta and will appear as a slight compression in the starfield, and you will be able to resolve a few individual stars to larger ones. Using a finderscope, it will appear as a very vague brightening – perhaps not seen at all depending on your finder’s aperture.

In even a small telescope, however, you’ll be pleased with what you see! Medium magnification will light up this 8th magnitude galactic star cluster and mid-sized instruments will fully resolve it. Power up! See how many stars you can – and can’t – resolve in this dusty, curtained, distant beauty!

And here are the quick facts to help you on your way!

Object Name: Messier 26
Alternative Designations: M26, NGC 6694
Object Type: Open Galactic Star Cluster
Constellation: Scutum
Right Ascension: 18 : 45.2 (h:m)
Declination: -09 : 24 (deg:m)
Distance: 5.0 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 8.0 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 15.0 (arc min)

We have written many interesting articles about Messier Objects here at Universe Today. Here’s Tammy Plotner’s Introduction to the Messier Objects, , M1 – The Crab Nebula, M8 – The Lagoon Nebula, and David Dickison’s articles on the 2013 and 2014 Messier Marathons.

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


Messier 11 (M11) – The Wild Duck Cluster

The Wild Duck Cluster photographed on amateur astrophotography equipment. Credit: Creative Commons/Rawastrodata

Welcome back to another edition of Messier Monday! Today, we continue in our tribute to Tammy Plotner with a look at the M11 Wild Duck Cluster!

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

One of these objects is M11, otherwise known as The Wild Duck Cluster, an open cluster located in the constellation Scutum, near the northern edge of a rich Milky Way star cloud (the Scutum Cloud). This open star cluster is one of the richest and most compact of all those known, composed of a few thousand hot, young stars that are only a few million years old.

Continue reading “Messier 11 (M11) – The Wild Duck Cluster”

Dazzling New Views of a Familiar Cluster

Credit: ESO

Wow. It’s always amazing to get new views of familiar sky targets. And you always know that a “feast for the eyes” is in store when astronomers turn a world-class instrument towards a familiar celestial object.

Such an image was released this morning from the European Southern Observatory (ESO). Astronomers turned ESO’s 2.2-metre telescope towards Messier 7 in the constellation Scorpius recently, and gave us the star-studded view above.

Also known as NGC 6475, Messier 7 (M7) is an open cluster comprised of over 100 stars located about 800 light years distant. Located in the curved “stinger” of the Scorpion, M7 is a fine binocular object shining at a combined magnitude of about +3.3. M7 is physically about 25 light years across and appears about 80 arc minutes – almost the span of three Full Moons – in diameter from our Earthly vantage point.

One of the most prominent open clusters in the sky, M7 lies roughly in the direction of the galactic center in the nearby astronomical constellation of Sagittarius. When you’re looking towards  M7 and the tail of Scorpius you’re looking just south of the galactic plane in the direction of the dusty core of our galaxy. The ESO image reveals the shining jewels of the cluster embedded against the more distant starry background.

Messier 7 is middle-aged as open clusters go, at 200 million years old. Of course, that’s still young for the individual stars themselves, which are just venturing out into the galaxy. The cluster will lose about 10% of its stellar population early on, as more massive stars live their lives fast and die young as supernovae. Our own solar system may have been witness to such nearby cataclysms as it left its unknown “birth cluster” early in its life.

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Other stars in Messier 7 will eventually mature, “join the galactic car pool” in the main sequence as they disperse about the plane of the galaxy.

But beyond just providing a pretty picture, studying a cluster such as Messier 7 is crucial to our understanding stellar evolution. All of the stars in Messier 7 were “born” roughly around the same time, giving researchers a snapshot and a chance to contrast and compare how stars mature over there lives. Each open cluster also has a unique spectral “fingerprint,” a chemical marker that can even be used to identify the pedigree of a star.

For example, there’s controversy that the open cluster Messier 67 may actually be the birth place of our Sun. It is interesting to note that the spectra of stars in this cluster do bear a striking resemblance in terms of metallicity percentage to Sol. Remember, metals in astronomer-speak is any element beyond hydrogen and helium. A chief objection to the Messier 67 “birth-place hypothesis” is the high orbital inclination of the open cluster about the core of our galaxy: our Sun would have had to have undergone a series of improbable stellar encounters to have ended up its current sedate quarter of a billion year orbit about the Milky Way galaxy.

Still, this highlights the value of studying clusters such as Messier 6. It’s also interesting to note that there’s also data in what you can’t see in the above image – dark gaps are thought to be dust lanes and globules in the foreground. Though there is some thought that this dust is debris that may also be related to the cluster and may give us clues as to its overall rotation, its far more likely that these sorts of “dark spirals” related to the cluster have long since dispersed. M7 has completed about one full orbit about the Milky Way since its formation.

Another famous binocular object, the open cluster Messier 6 (M6) also known as the Butterfly Cluster lies nearby. Messier 7 also holds the distinction as being the southernmost object in Messier’s catalog. Compiled from Parisian latitudes, Charles Messier entirely missed southern wonders such as Omega Centauri in his collection of deep sky objects that were not to be mistaken for comets. We also always thought it curious that he included such obvious “non-comets” such as the Pleiades, but missed fine northern sky objects as the Double Cluster in the northern constellation Perseus.

Finding Messier 6: the view from latitude 30 degrees north before dawn in mid-February. Credit: Stellarium.
Finding Messier 6: the view from latitude 30 degrees north before dawn in mid-February. Credit: Stellarium.

Messier 7 is also sometimes called Ptolemy’s Cluster after astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, who first described it in 130 A.D. as the “nebula following the sting of Scorpius.” The season for hunting all of Messier’s objects in an all night marathon is coming right up in March, and Messier 7 is one of the last targets on the list, hanging high due south in the early morning sky.

Interested in catching how Messier 7 will evolve, or might look like up close?  Check out Messier 45 (the Pleiades) and the V-shaped Hyades high in the skies in the constellation Taurus at dusk to see what’s in store as Messier 7 disperses, as well as the Ursa Major Moving Group.

And be sure to enjoy the fine view today of Messier 7 from the ESO!

Got pics of Messier 7 or any other deep sky objects? Send ’em, in to Universe Today!

Two “b”‘s in the Beehive

Praesepe (aka. the Beehive Cluster)

As astronomers near the 800 mark for confirmed extra solar planets, it seems that notable milestones are becoming fewer and further between. Multi-planet systems aren’t even worth mentioning. Planets less massive than Earth? Already heard about it. Detecting atmospheres? Old news.

But a recent paper manages to sneak in one new first: The first detection of hot Jupiters in an open cluster. This discovery is not simply notable due to the novelty, but clusters have special characteristics that can help astronomers determine more of the history of the system.

The discovery was made by astronomers at Georgia State University using the “wobble” method in which they looked for the spectroscopic wiggle of spectral lines as planets tugged their parent stars around in orbit. The Beehive Cluster was chosen because it is a nearby cluster with over 1,000 member stars, many of which are similar in mass to the Sun. Additionally, the cluster is known to have an above average metallicity which is known to be correlated with planetary systems.

Searches of other open clusters have largely come up empty. Only two stars in open clusters have so far been found to have planets and both of those are around giant stars and as such, the planets are in wide orbits. This paucity is odd since stars are expected to form in clusters, and as such, the frequency of planets in clusters should be nearly the same as isolated stars.

The team used the 1.5-m Tillinghast Reflector at the Fred L. Whipple Observatory on Mt. Hopkins, Arizona observing a total of 53 stars in the cluster. Their results uncovered two new hot Jupiter planets in tight orbits around the parent, main-sequence stars. The first has an estimated mass of 0.54 times that of Jupiter while the second weighs in at 1.8 Jupiter masses.

The discovery helps to place constraints on how planets form and migrate in fledgling systems. Since massive planets such as these would need to form further out in colder parts of the circumstellar cloud, such planets would have to move inwards. The time period in which this happens has been a difficult question for astronomers to pin down. But since the Beehive cluster is only 600 million years old and these new planets are already in tight orbits, this helps to demonstrate that such migration is possible on short timescales.

While these are the first of their kind discovered in open clusters, this discovery puts the number of hot Jupiters in open clusters in rough agreement with expectations based on the number of such systems of stars that are no longer bound in clusters. This finding bridges the gap between formation and isolated stars that previous searches of open clusters had left open.