Messier 18 (M18) – The NGC 6613 Star Cluster

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

History of Observation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Locating Messier 18:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messier 6 – The Butterfly Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! We continue our tribute to our dear friend, Tammy Plotner, by looking at Messier 6, otherwise known as NGC 6405 and the Butterfly Cluster. Enjoy!

In the late 18th century, Charles Messier was busy hunting for comets in the night sky, and noticed several “nebulous” objects. After initially mistaking them for the comets he was seeking, he began to compile a list of these objects so other astronomers would not make the same mistake. Known as the Messier Catalog, this list consists of 100 objects, consisting of distant galaxies, nebulae, and star clusters.

This Catalog would go on to become a major milestone in the history of astronomy, as well as the study of Deep Sky Objects. Among the many famous objects in this catalog is M6 (aka. NGC 6405), an open cluster of stars in the constellation of Scorpius. Because of its vague resemblance to a butterfly, it is known as the Butterfly Cluster.

Continue reading “Messier 6 – The Butterfly Cluster”

ESO’s La Silla Observatory Reveals Beautiful Star Cluster “Laboratory”

Any human being knows the awe-inspiring wonder of a splash of stars against a dark backdrop. But it takes a skilled someone to truly appreciate a distant object viewed through an eyepiece. Your gut tightens as you realize that the tiny fuzzy blob is really thousands of light-years away.

That wave of amazement is encouraged by understanding and knowledge.

Stunning photographs of the cosmos further convey the beauty that arises from the simple interplay of dust, light and gas on absolutely massive and distant scales. The striking image above from ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile is but one example.

Stars are born in enormous clouds of gas and dust. Small pockets in these clouds collapse under the pull of gravity, eventually becoming so hot that they ignite nuclear fusion. The result is a cluster of tens to hundreds of thousands of stars bound together by their mutual gravitational attraction.

Every star in a cluster is roughly the same age and has the same chemical composition. They’re the closest thing astronomers have to a controlled laboratory environment.

This chart shows the location of the bright open star cluster NGC 3293 in the southern constellation of Carina (The Keel). All the stars visible to the naked eye on a clear and dark night are marked, along with the positions of some nebulae and clusters. The location of NGC 3293 is marked with a red circle. This cluster is bright enough to be seen without optical aid in good conditions and is a spectacular sight in a moderate-sized telescope. Credit: ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope
This chart shows the location of the bright open star cluster NGC 3293 (marked by a red circle) in the southern constellation of Carina. Image Credit: ESO / IAU / Sky & Telescope

The star cluster, NGC 3293, is located 8000 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Carina. It was first spotted by the French astronomer Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille during his stay in South Africa in 1751. Because it stands as one of the brightest clusters in the southern sky, de Lacaille was able to site it in a tiny telescope with an aperture of just 12 millimeters.

The cluster is less than 10 million years old, as can be seen by the abundance of hot, blue stars. Despite some evidence suggesting that there is still some ongoing star formation, it is thought that most, if not all, of the nearly 50 stars were born in one single event.

But even though these stars are all the same age, they do not all have the dazzling appearance of stars in their infancy. Some look positively elderly. The reason is simple: stars of different size, evolve at different speeds. More massive stars speed through their evolution, dying quickly, while less massive stars can live tens of billions of years.

Take the bright orange star at the bottom right of the cluster. Stars initially draw their energy from burning hydrogen into helium deep within their cores. But this star ran out of hydrogen fuel faster than its neighbors, and quickly evolved into a cool and bright, giant star with a contracted core but an extended atmosphere.

It’s now a cool, red giant, in a new stage of evolution, while its neighbors remain hot, young stars.

Eventually the star will collapse under its own gravity, throwing off its outer layers in a supernova explosion, and leaving behind a neutron star or a black hole. The peppering shock waves will likely initiate further star formation in the ever-changing laboratory.

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Source: ESO

Weekly SkyWatcher’s Forecast – September 17-23, 2012

Greetings, fellow SkyWatchers! This looks like a great week to take in some galactic star clusters and enjoy the Andromeda Galaxy! Some lucky viewers are in for a Mars occultation event and everyone wins with a meteor shower. What’s that, you say? Darn right. This week is also the time of the Autumnal Equinox! When ever you’re ready to learn more, just meet me in the back yard…

Monday, September 17 – Today in 1789, William Herschel discovered Saturn’s moon Mimas.

Tonight we’ll hunt with the “Fox” as we head to Vulpecula to try two more open star cluster studies. The first can be done easily with large binoculars or a low power scope. It’s a rich beauty that lies in the constellation of Vulpecula, but is more easily found by moving around 3 degrees southeast of Beta Cygni.

Known as Stock 1, this stellar swarm contains around 50 or so members of varying magnitudes that you will return to often. With a visual magnitude of near 5, loose associations of stars – like Stock clusters – are the subject of recent research. The latest information indicates that the members of this cluster are truly associated with one another.

A little more than a degree to the northeast is NGC 6815 (Right Ascension:19 : 40.9 – Declination: +26 : 51). While this slightly more compressed open cluster has no real status amongst deep sky objects, it is another one to add to your collection of things to do and see!

Tuesday, September 18 – Tonight we’ll start with an asterism known as the “Coat Hanger,” but it is also known as Brocchi’s Cluster, or Collinder 399. Let the colorful double star Beta Cygni – Albireo – be your guide as you move about 4 degrees to its south-southwest. You will know this cluster when you see it, because it really does look like a coat hanger! Enjoy its red stars.

First discovered by Al Sufi in 964 AD, this 3.5 magnitude collection of stars was again recorded by Hodierna. Thanks to its expansive size of more than 60 arc minutes, it escaped the catalogues of both Messier and Herschel. Only around a half dozen stars share the same proper motion, which may make it a cluster much like the Pleiades, but studies suggest it is merely an asterism…but one with two binary stars at its heart.
And for larger scopes? Fade east to the last prominent star in the cluster and power up. NGC 6802 (Right Ascension: 19 : 30.6 – Declination: +20 : 16) awaits you! At near magnitude 9, Herschel VI.14 is a well compressed open cluster of faint members. The subject of ongoing research in stellar evolution, this 100,000 year old cluster is on many observing challenge lists!

Wednesday, September 19 – On this day in 1848, William Boyd was watching Saturn – and discovered its moon Hyperion. On this date a moon will be on everyone’s mind as our Moon occults Mars (Pacific, South America, SW Atlantic). Be sure to check information such as the International Occultation Timing Assoication (IOTA) for specific details in your area. Even if you aren’t in a position to catch the occultation, it will still make a splendid scene! Also today in 1988, Israel launched its first satellite. How long has it been since you’ve watched an ISS pass or an iridium flare? Both are terrific events that don’t require any special equipment to be seen. Be sure to check with Heavens Above for accurate times and passes in your location and enjoy!

Tonight we again visit the M15 (Right Ascension: 21 : 30.0 – Declination: +12 : 10) globular and learn more about the scale of the Universe – circa 1900. On a decent night, a modest telescope will resolve about a dozen 13th magnitude stars outside M15?s core region. Most of these stars are red giants with absolute magnitudes of -2. Such stars appear 15 magnitudes fainter than they would be if they were at an astronomically standardized distance. Based on this 15 magnitude loss in intensity, we should be able to figure out how far away M15 is, but this is circular reasoning. In the early 1900s, astronomers didn’t know that the brightest stars in M15 were absolute magnitude -2. They first needed to know how far away the globular was to make sense of that.

Here’s where the H-R diagram helps out.

The most massive and swollen red giants (those nearing the end of their lives such as Betelgeuse and Antares) can be as luminous as absolute magnitude -6, but you can’t assume that the brightest red giants in a globular cluster are as bright as Antares and Betelgeuse. Why? Because we later discovered that all stars in a globular cluster entered the main sequence about the same time – some 12 billion years ago. Meanwhile, the very brightest ones – the Denebs – are no longer around. They exited the main sequence, became red giants and exploded a long, time ago, and possibly in a dwarf galaxy far, far away!

Now let’s take a a stellar tour of Lyra! First we’ll look at a double which has a close separation – Epsilon Lyrae. Known to most of us as the “Double Double,” look about a finger width northeast of Vega. Even the slightest optical aid will reveal this tiny star as a pair, but the real treat is with a telescope – for each component is a double star! Both sets of stars appear as primarily white and both are very close to each other in magnitude. What is the lowest power that you can use to split them?

Now let’s head for the northeast corner of the little parallelogram that is part of Lyra for easy unaided eye and binocular double Delta 1 and 2 Lyrae.

The westernmost Delta 1 is about 1100 light-years away and is a class B dwarf, but take a closer look at brighter Delta 2. This M-class giant is only 900 light-years away. Perhaps 75 million years ago, it, too, was a B class star, but it now has a dead helium core and it keeps on growing. While it is now a slight variable, it may in the future become a Mira-type. A closer look will show that it also has a true binary system nearby – a tightly matched 11th magnitude system. Oddly enough they are the same distance away as Delta-2 and are believed to be physically related.

Thursday, September 20 – Now let the Moon head west, because on this night in 1948, the 48? Schmidt telescope at Mt. Palomar was busy taking pictures. The first photographic plate was being exposed on a galaxy by the same man who ground and polished the corrector plate for this scope – Hendricks. His object of choice was reproduced as panel 18 in the Hubble Atlas of Galaxies and tonight we’ll join his vision as we take a look at the fantastic M31 – the Andromeda Galaxy.

Seasoned amateur astronomers can literally point to the sky and show you the location of M31 (Right Ascension: 0 : 42.7 – Declination: +41 : 16), but perhaps you have never tried. Believe it or not, this is an easy galaxy to spot even under the moonlight. Simply identify the large diamond-shaped pattern of stars that is the “Great Square of Pegasus.” The northernmost star is Alpha, and it is here we will begin our hop. Stay with the north chain of stars and look four finger-widths away for an easily seen star. The next along the chain is about three finger-widths away… And we’re almost there. Two more finger-widths to the north and you will see a dimmer star that looks like it has something smudgy nearby. Point your binoculars there, because that’s no cloud – it’s the Andromeda Galaxy!

Friday, September 21 – And what was Sir William Herschel doing on this date a couple of centuries ago? You can bet he was out telescoping; and his discoveries on this night were many. How about if we take a look at two logged on September 21 which made the Herschel “400? list?

Our first stop is northern Cygnus for NGC 7086 (RA 21 30 30 Dec +51 35 00). Located on the galactic equator about five degrees west of Beta Cephei, our target is an open cluster. At magnitude 8.4, this loose collection will be difficult for the smaller scope, and show as not much more than an arrow-like asterism. However, larger scopes will be able to resolve many more stars, arrayed in long loops and chains around the brighter members. Although it’s sparse, NGC 7086 has been studied for metal abundance, galactic distance, membership richness, and its luminosity function. Be sure to mark your notes for H VI.32, logged by Herschel in 1788.

Now hop on over to Andromeda for NGC 752 (RA 01 57 41 Dec +37 47 06). You’ll find it just a few degrees south of Gamma and in the field north of star 56. Located 1300 light-years away, there’s a strong possibility this cluster was noted first by Hodierna before being cataloged by Herschel on this night (1786). At near magnitude 5, this “400? object is both large and bright enough to be seen in binoculars or small telescopes, and people have often wondered why Messier did not discover it. The star-studded field containing about 70 members of various magnitudes belong to H VII.32 – a very old cluster which has more recently been studied for its metallicity and the variations in the magnetic fields of its members. Enjoy them both tonight! Sir William did…

Saturday, September 22 – Today marks the universal date of Autumnal Equinox. Enjoy this “equal” period of day and night!

Tonight we’ll return again to Vulpecula – but with a different goal in mind. What we’re after requires dark skies – but can be seen in both binoculars and a small telescope. Once you’ve found Alpha, begin about two fingerwidths southeast and right on the galactic equator you’ll find NGC 6823 (Right Ascension: 19 : 43.1 – Declination: +23 : 18).

The first thing you will note is a fairly large, somewhat concentrated magnitude 7 open cluster. Resolved in larger telescopes, the viewer may note these stars are the hot, blue/white variety. For good reason. NGC 6823 only formed about 2 billion years ago. Although it is some 6000 light-years away and occupies around 50 light-years of space, it’s sharing the field with something more – a very large emission/reflection nebula, NGC 6820 (Right Ascension: 19 : 43.1 – Declination: +23 : 17).

In the outer reaches of the star cluster, new stars are being formed in masses of gas and dust as hot radiation is shed from the brightest of the stellar members of this pair. Fueled by emission, NGC 6820 isn’t always an easy visual object – it is faint and covers almost four times as much area as the cluster. But trace the edges very carefully, since the borders are much more illuminated than the region of the central cluster. Take the time to really observe this one! Its processes are very much like those of the “Trapezium” area in the Orion nebula. Be sure to mark your observing notes. NGC 6823 is Herschel VII.18 and NGC 6820 is also known as Marth 401!

Now we’re off to a spectacular open cluster – NGC 6940. At close to magnitude 6, you’ll find this unsung symphony of stars around three fingerwidths southwest of Epsilon Cygni (RA 20 34 24.00 Dec +28 17 -0.0).

Discovered by Sir William Herschel on Oct 15, 1784, and logged as H VIII.23, this intermediate aged galactic cluster will blow your mind in larger aperture. Visible in binoculars, as size increases the field explodes into about 100 stars in a highly compressed, rich cloud. Although it is not an often visited cluster, it is part of many observing challenge lists. Use low power to get the full effect of this stunning starfield!

Sunday, September 23 – On this day in 1846, Johann Galle of the Berlin Observatory makes a visual discovery. While at the telescope, Galle sees and identifies the planet Neptune for the first time in history. On this day in 1962, the prime time cartoon “The Jetsons” premiered. Think of all the technology this inspired!

Rather than doing lunar work tonight, why not wait until the Moon has westered and have an “Autumn Planetary Marathon”? Start easy with M57 between Gamma and Beta Lyrae. Head north-northwest to the “Cat’s Eye” (NGC 6543) roughly between Delta and Zeta Draconis – you’ll need your charts for this one! Now southwest to the “Blinking Planetary” (NGC 6543) – found less than three degrees east-southeast of Iota Cygni. Continue east-southeast a little less than 6 degrees past Deneb to the “Box Planetary” – NGC 7027. Now on to the brightest of the ten – M27. The “Dumbbell Nebula” is located a little more than 3 degrees north of Gamma Sagittae. Now drop two hand spans south to the “Little Gem” (NGC 6818) – around 7 degrees northeast of Rho Sagittarii.

One hand span east of the “Little Gem” leads you toward the “Saturn Nebula” in Aquarius – a little more than a degree west of Nu. Now it’s a huge jump of more than two hand spans west-northwest to tiny NGC 6572 – located around two finger-widths south-southeast of 72 Ophiuchi. Continue on to compact NGC 6790 a finger-width south of Delta Aquilae. Did you find them all? Well, if the “Cat’s Eye” is the toughest to locate, then NGC 6790 is the hardest to identify. Good going! But don’t stop now… Two hand spans west-northwest leads to NGC 6210 – best located using pointer stars Gamma and Beta Herculis. Excellent work!

Ready for the finale? Now, kick back… relax… and watch the Alpha Aurigid meteor shower. Face northeast and look for the radiant near Capella. The fall rate is around 12 per hour, and they are fast and leave trails!

Until next week? Wishing you clear skies…

96 New Reasons To Love Star Clusters


“Ninety-six clusters of stars in the sky…. Ninety-six clusters of stars… You take one down and pass it around…” Do you need ninety-six new reasons to love astronomy? Then you’re going to want to hear about all the new discoveries the VISTA infrared survey telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory has made. Read on…

An international team of astronomers has taken observations to the next level with their discovery of 96 new star clusters which have been hidden behind the dusty cloak of interstellar matter. By utilizing sensitive infrared detectors and the world’s largest survey telescope, the intrepid crew set a new record for finding so many faint and small clusters at one time.

“This discovery highlights the potential of VISTA and the VVV survey for finding star clusters, especially those hiding in dusty star-forming regions in the Milky Way’s disc. VVV goes much deeper than other surveys,” says Jura Borissova, lead author of the study.

As astronomy enthusiasts well know, there’s more to a galactic cluster than just a pretty grouping of stars. Age, relation and motion all play a role. Some are loose groupings – held together by mutual gravitational attraction. Others are torn apart through interactions. Still others are in the process of formation, caught in the act with their gases showing. Yet all share a common denominator: they are around few hundred million years old and they are the by-product of a galaxy with active star formation.

“In order to trace the youngest star cluster formation we concentrated our search towards known star-forming areas. In regions that looked empty in previous visible-light surveys, the sensitive VISTA infrared detectors uncovered many new objects,” adds Dante Minniti, lead scientist of the VVV survey.

Once the grouping has been discovered, classification comes next. Through the use of specialized computer software, the team was able to separate foreground stars from genuine cluster components. Observation then came into play as stellar members were counted, sizes estimated, distances computed and extinction taken into consideration.

“We found that most of the clusters are very small and only have about 10–20 stars. Compared to typical open clusters, these are very faint and compact objects — the dust in front of these clusters makes them appear 10,000 to 100 million times fainter in visible light. It’s no wonder they were hidden,” explains Radostin Kurtev, another member of the team.

Since antiquity only 2500 open clusters have been found in the Milky Way, but astronomers estimate there might be as many as 30,000 still hiding behind the dust and gas. That means these new 96 open clusters could be only the very beginning of a host of new discoveries. “We’ve just started to use more sophisticated automatic software to search for less concentrated and older clusters. I am confident that many more are coming soon,” adds Borissova.

Until then we’ll just “Take one down and pass it around… 29,999 clusters of stars in the sky.”

Original Story Source: ESO Press Release.