The Eridanus Constellation

Welcome to another edition of Constellation Friday! Today, in honor of the late and great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the winding river – the Eridanus constellation. Enjoy!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of the then-known 48 constellations. This treatise, known as the Almagest, would be used by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come, effectively becoming astrological and astronomical canon until the early Modern Age.

One of these is the southern constellation of Eridanus, the sixth largest modern constellation in the night sky. The constellation takes its name from the Greek name for the river Po in Italy and is represented by a celestial river. This constellation is bordered by the constellations of Caelum, Cetus, Fornax, Horologium, Hydrus, Lepus, PhoenixTaurus, and Tucana.

Continue reading “The Eridanus Constellation”

The Equuleus Constellation

Welcome to another edition of Constellation Friday! Today, in honor of the late and great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the “little horse” – the Equuleus constellation. Enjoy!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of the then-known 48 constellations. This treatise, known as the Almagest, would be used by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come, effectively becoming astrological and astronomical canon until the early Modern Age.

One of these constellation is Equuleus (aka. “little Horse”), a constellation that lies in the northern sky. This small, faint constellation is the second smallest in the night sky, after Crux (the Southern Cross). Today, it is one of the 88 modern constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and is bordered by the constellations of Aquarius, Delphinus and Pegasus. Continue reading “The Equuleus Constellation”

The Dorado Constellation

Welcome to another edition of Constellation Friday! Today, in honor of the late and great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at that fishiest of asterisms – the Dorado constellation. Enjoy!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of all the then-known 48 constellations. This treatise, known as the Almagest, would be used by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come, effectively becoming astrological and astronomical canon until the early Modern Age.

Since that time, many additional constellations have been discovered, such as Dorado. This southern constellation, which was discovered in the 16th century by Dutch navigators, is now one of the 88 constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). It is bordered by the constellations of Caelum, Horologium, Hydrus, Mensa, Pictor, Reticulum, and Volans.

Name and Meaning:

Because of its southerly position, Dorado was unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans so no classical mythological connection exists. However, there are some very nice tales and history associated with this constellation. The name Dorado is Spanish for mahi-mahi, or the dolphin-fish. The mahi-mahi has a opalescent skin that turns blue and gold as the fish dies.

Image of the night sky taken at the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are visible in the night sky. Credit: ESO, Y. Beletsky

This may very well be the reason Dorado is sometimes called the goldfish is certain stories and legends. Because the early Dutch explorers observed the mahi-mahi chasing swordfish, Dorado was added to their new sky charts following the constellation of the flying fish, Volans. Some very old star atlases refer to Dorado as Xiphias, another form of swordfish, but clearly its “fishy” nature stands!

History of Observation:

Dorado was one of twelve constellations named by Dutch astronomer Petrus Plancius, based on the observations of Dutch sailors that explored the southern hemisphere during the 16th century. It first appeared on a celestial globe published circa 1597-8 in Amsterdam. Dorado was taken a bit more seriously when it was included by Johann Bayer in 1603 in his star atlas, Uranometria, where it appeared under its current name.

It has endured to become one of the 88 modern constellations adopted and approved by the International Astronomical Union.

Notable Objects:

Covering 179 square degrees of sky, it consists of three main stars and contains 14 Bayer/Flamsteed designated stellar members. Dorado has several bright stars and contains no Messier objects. The brightest star in the constellation is Alpha Doradus, a binary star that is approximately 169 light years distant. This binary system is one of the brightest known, and is composed of a blue-white giant (classification A0III) and a blue-white subgiant (B9IV).

The Tarantula Nebula (NGC 2070) located in the southern Dorado constelaltion. Credit: ESO

Beta Doradus, the second brightest star in the constellation, is a Cepheid variable star located approximately 1,050 light years from Earth. Its spectral type varies from white (F-type) to yellow (G-type), like our Sun. Gamma Doradus is another variable, which serves as a prototype for stars known as Gamma Doradus variables, and is approximately 66.2 light years distant.

Another interesting character is HE 0437-5439, an unbound hypervelocity star in Dorado discovered in 2005. This star appears to be receding at the speed of 723 km/s (449 mi/s), and is therefore no longer gravitationally bound to the Milky Way. It is approximately 200,000 light years distant and is a main sequence star belonging to the spectral type BV (a white-blue subdwarf).

Most notable is the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), an irregular galaxy located in the constellations Dorado and Mensa. This satellite galaxy to the Milky Way is roughly 1/100 times as massive as our galaxy, with an estimated ten billion times the mass of the Sun. Located about 157,000 light years away, the LMC is home to several impressive objects – like the Tarantula Nebula and the Ghost Head Nebula.

There are no meteor showers associated with the constellation.

The Ghost Head Nebula (NGC 2080), . Credit: ESA/NASA/Mohammad Heydari-Malayeri

Finding Dorado:

The South Ecliptic Pole lies within Dorado and it is bordered by the constellations of Caelum, Horologium, Reticulum, Hydrus, Mensa, Volans and Pictor. It is visible at latitudes between +20° and -90° and is best seen at culmination during the month of January. Let’s begin our explorations with binoculars and Alpha Doradus – the “a” symbol on our map. One of the reasons this star shines so brightly is because it’s not one – but two.

Don’t get your telescope out just yet, because Alpha is separated by only only a couple tenths of a second of arc and both members are about a magnitude apart. Located about 175 light years away from our solar system, this tight pair averages a distance between each other that’s equal to about the same distance as Saturn from our Sun. That’s not particularly unusual for a binary star, but what is unusual is the primary star. Alpha Dor A’s spectrum is “peculiar” – very rich in silicon. It seems to be concentrated in a stellar magnetic spot!

Let’s have a look at Cephid variable star Beta Doradus – the “B” symbol on our map. Beta is an evolved super giant star and every 9.942 days it reaches a maximum brightness of magnitude 3.46 then drops to magnitude 4.08. While these types of changes are so slight they would be difficult to follow with just the eye, that doesn’t mean what happens isn’t important. By studying Cephids we understand “period-luminosity” relation. The pulsation period of a Cepheid gives us absolute brightness, and comparing it with apparent brightness gives us distance. That way, when we find a Cepheid variable star in another galaxy, we can tell just how far away that galaxy is!

Now, let’s go from one end of the constellation to the other with binoculars as we start with Delta Doradus – the “8” shape on our map. If you were on the Moon, this particular star would be the south “pole star” – just like Polaris is to the north on Earth! Sweep along the body of the fish and end at Gamma Doradus – the “Y” shape on our map. Guess what? Another variable star! But this one isn’t a Cepheid. Gamma Doradus variables are variable stars which display variations in luminosity due to non-radial pulsations of their surface.

The stars are typically young, early F or late A type main sequence stars, and typical brightness fluctuations are 0.1 magnitudes with periods on the order of one day. This is a relatively new class of variable stars, having been first characterised in the second half of the 1990s, and details on the underlying physical cause of the variations remains under investigation. We call these mysterious strangers Oscillating Blue Stragglers.

Don’t put away your binoculars yet. We have to look at R Doradus! Here we have a red giant Mira variable star that’s about 200 to 225 light years away from Earth. The visible magnitude of R Doradus varies between 4.8 and 6.6, which makes the variable changes easy to follow with binoculars, but when viewed in the infrared it is one of the brightest stars in the sky. However, this isn’t what the most interesting part is.

With the exception of our own Sun, R Doradus is currently believed to be the star with the largest apparent size as viewed from Earth. The stellar diameter of R Doradus could be as much as 585 million kilometers. That’s upwards to 400 times larger than Sol – yet it has about the same mass! If placed at the center of the Solar System, the orbit of Mars would be entirely contained within the star. Too cool…

Dorado contains a huge amount of deep sky objects very well suited for binoculars, small and large telescopes. So many, in fact, our small star chart would be so cluttered that it would be impossible to read designations. One of the most notable of all is the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of our Milky Way Galaxy’s neighbors and members of our local galaxy group. In itself, it is an irregular dwarf galaxy, distorted by tidal interaction with the Milky Way and may have once been barred spiral galaxies.

The Magellanic Clouds’ radial velocity and proper velocity were recently accurately measured by a team from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics to produce a 3-D velocity measurement that clocked their passage through the Milky Way galaxy in excess of 480km/s (300 miles per second) using input from Hubble Telescope. This unusually high velocity seems to imply that they are in fact not bound to the Milky Way, and many of the presumed effects of the Magellanic Clouds have to be revised. Be sure to explore the LMC for its own host of nebula and star forming regions. It was host to a supernova (SN 1987A), the brightest observed in over three centuries!

For the telescope, there are many objects in Dorado that you don’t want to miss. (This article would be 10 pages long if I listed them all, so let’s just highlight a few.) For galaxy group fans, why not choose NGC 1566 (RA 04h 20m 00s Dec -56 56.3′) NGC 1566 is a spiral galaxy that dominates the Dorado Group and it is also a Seyfert galaxy as well. At the center of the cluster, look for interacting galaxies NGC 1549 and NGC 1553.

These two bright members are lenticular galaxy NGC 1553 (RA 04h 16m 10.5s Dec -55 46′ 49″), and elliptical galaxy NGC 1549 (RA 04h 15m 45.1s Dec -55 35′ 32″). Their interaction appears to be in the early stage and can be seen in optical wavelengths by faint but distinct irregular shells of emission and a curious jet on the northwest side. Chandra X-ray imaging of NGC 1553 show diffuse hot gas making up 70% of the emissions, dotted with many point-like sources (low-mass X-ray binaries) making up the rest.

Similar to Messier 60, these bright spots are binary star systems of black holes and neutron stars most of which are located in globular clusters and reflect this old galaxy’s very active past. In these systems, material pulled off a regular star is heated and gives off X-rays as it falls toward the accompanying black hole or neutron star.

The location of the southern Constellation Dorado. Credit: IAU/Sky&Telescope magazine

 

Turn your telescope towards NGC 2164 (RA 05h 58m 53s Dec -68 30.9′). Here we are resolving an open star cluster / globular cluster that’s in another galaxy, folks! Also nearby you’ll find faint open cluster NGC 2172 (RA 5 : 59.9 Dec -68 : 38) and galactic star cluster NGC 2159 (05 57.8, -68 38). What a treat to study in another galaxy!

Would you like to study another complex? Then let’s take a look at NGC 2032 (RA 05h 35m 21s Dec -67 34.1′). Better known as the “Seagull Nebula” this complex that contains four separate NGC designations: NGC 2029, NGC 2032, NGC 2035 and NGC 2040. Spanning across an open star cluster, there are many nebula types here including emission nebula, reflection nebula and HII regions. It is also bissected by a dark nebula, too!

Of course, no telescope trip through Dorado would be complete without stopping by NGC 2070 (RA 05h 38m 37s Dec -69 05.7′) – the “Tarantula Nebula”. Located about 180,000 light years from our solar system and first recorded by Nicolas Louis de Lacaille in 1751, this huge HII region is an extremely luminous object. Its luminosity is so bright that if it were as close to Earth as the Orion Nebula, the Tarantula Nebula would cast shadows. In fact, it is the most active starburst region known in our Local Group of galaxies! At its core lies the extremely compact cluster of stars that provides the energy to make the nebula visible. And we’re glad it does!

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

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

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

Sources:

The Delphinus Constellation

Welcome to another edition of Constellation Friday! Today, in honor of the late and great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at “the Dolphin” – the Delphinus constellation. Enjoy!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of all the then-known 48 constellations. This treatise, known as the Almagest, would be used by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come, effectively becoming astrological and astronomical canon until the early Modern Age.

One of these is the northern constellation of Delphinus, which translates to “the Dolphin” in Latin. This constellation is located close to the celestial equator and is bordered by Vulpecula, Sagitta, Aquila, Aquarius, Equuleus, and Pegasus. Today, Delphinus is one of the 88 modern constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU).

Name and Meaning:

According to classical Greek mythology, Delphinus represented a Dolphin. Once you “see” Delphinus, it is not hard to picture a small dolphin leaping from the waters of the Milky Way. According to Greek legend, Poseidon wanted to marry Amphitrite, a Nereid – or sea nymph. However, she hid from him. Poseidon sent out searchers, one of whom was named Delphinus.

Delphinus is depicted on the left of this card from Urania’s Mirror (1825). Credit: Library of Congress/Sidney Hall

Can you guess who found Amphitrite and talked her into marrying? You got it. In gratitude, Poseidon placed Delphinus’ image among the stars. Not a bad call since the Nereids were known to live in the silvery caves of the deep and the silvery Milky Way is so nearby!

In the other version of the myth, it was Apollo – the god of poetry and music – who placed the dolphin among the constellations for saving the life of Arion, a famed poet and musician. Arion was born on the island of Lesbos and his skill with the lyre made him famous in the 7th century BC.

History of Observation:

The small constellation of Delphinus was one of the original 48 constellations complied by Ptolemy in the Almagest in the 2nd century CE. In Chinese astronomy, the stars of Delphinus are located within the Black Tortoise of the North (Bei Fang Xuán Wu) – one of the four symbols associated with the Chinese constellations. Delphinus was also recognized by some cultures in Polynesia – particularly the people of Pukapuka and the Tuamotu Islands.

Notable Objects:

Located very near the celestial equator, this kite-like asterism is comprised of 5 main stars and contains 19 stellar members with Bayer/Flamsteed designations. It’s primary star, Alpha Delphini (aka. Sualocin), is a multiple star system located 240 light years from Earth which consists of an aging subgiant of 2.82 Solar masses, and a companion that cannot be discerned because it is too close to its primary and too faint.

Next is Beta Delphini (aka. Rotanev), a pair of stars located approximately 101 light years from Earth. This system is comprised of a F5 III class blue-white giant and a F5 IV blue-white subgiant. If you don’t think astronomers have a sense of humor, then you better think again! Sualocin and Rotanev were both named by Italian astronomer Nicolaus Cacciatore, who simply spelled the Latin form of name (Nicolaus Venator) backwards as a practical joke!

Globular cluster NGC 6934. Credit: Hubble Space Telescope

Epsilon Delphini (aka. Deneb Dulfim) is a spectral class B6 III blue-white giant star located about 358 light years from Earth. It’s traditional name comes from the Arabic ðanab ad-dulf?n, meaning “tail of the Dolphin”.  Then there’s Rho Aquilae (aka. Tso Ke), a main sequence A2V white dwarf that is 154 light years distant. The star’s traditional name means “the left flag” in Mandarin, which refers to an asterism formed by Rho Aquilae and several stars in the constellation Sagittarius.

Delphinus is also home to numerous Deep Sky Objects, like the relatively large globular cluster NGC 6934. Located near Epsilon Delphini, this cluster is roughly 50,000 light years from Earth and was discovered by William Herschel on September 24th, 1785. Another globular cluster, known as NGC 7006, can be found near Gamma Delphini, roughly 137,000 light-years from Earth.

Delphinus is also home to the small planetary nebulas of NGC 6891 and NGC 6905 (the “Blue Flash Nebula”). Whereas the former is located near Rho Aquilae about 7,200 light years from Earth, the more notable Blue Flash Nebula (named because of its blue coloring) is located between 5,545 and 7,500 light-years from Earth.

Finding Delphinus:

Delphinus is bordered by the constellations of Vulpecula, Sagitta, Aquila, Aquarius, Equuleus and Pegasus. It is visible to all viewers at latitudes between +90° and -70° and is best seen at culmination during the month of September. Are you ready to start exploring Delphinus with binoculars? Then we’ll star with Alpha Delphini, whose name is Sualocin.

The small planetary nebula of NGC 6891. Credit: Judy Schmidt

Sualocin has seven components: A and G, a physical binary, and B, C, D, E, and F, which are optical and have no physical association with A and G. The primary is another rapid rotator star, whipping around at about 160 kilometers per second at its equator – or about 70 times faster than our Sun.

What it’s classification is, is confusing as well. It might a hydrogen-fusing main sequence star, and it subgiant that might just be starting to evolve. Wherever Suolocin lay in the scheme of things, there’s no use trying to resolve out the companion star, because it’s only a fraction of a second of arc away. However, Alpha’s nearby star, still makes for an interesting binocular view!

Now let’s look at Beta Delphini. Are you still ready for a smile? Good old Cacciatore wasn’t done yet. Beta’s name is Rotanev, which is a reversal of his Latinized family name, Venator. Here again we have a multiple star system. Rotanev has five components. Stars A and B are are a true physical binary star, while the others are simply optical companions. This time it’s cool to get out the telescope and split them!

Beta Delphini is a fine target for testing quality optics. At 97 light years from Earth, Rotanev’s components are only separated by about one stellar magnitude and 0.65 seconds of arc. By the way, in case you were wondering…. Nicolaus Venator was the assistant of the one and only Giuseppe Piazzi!

Are you ready for a look at Gamma Delphini? It’s the Y shape on the map. Here we have a binary star very worthy of even a small telescope. Located about a 101 light-years away from Earth, Gamma is one of the best known double stars in the night sky. The primary is a yellow-white dwarf star, a the secondary is an orange subgiant star. Both are separated by about one stellar magnitude and a very comfortable 9.2 seconds of arc apart.

The globular cluster NGC 7006. Credit: NASA

Regardless of their spectral class, take a look at how differently their colors appear in the telescope. While Gamma 1 (to the west) should by all rights be white, it often appears pale yellow orange, while Gamma 2 can appear yellow, green, or blue.

Before we put our binoculars away, let’s have a look at Delta Delphini – the figure “8” on our chart. Delta has no given name, but it has a partner. That’s right, it’s also a binary star. Its identical members are too close together to see separately and only by studying them spectroscopically were astronomers able to detect their 40.58 day orbital period.

Although Delta is officially classed as a type A (A7) giant star, it has a very strange low stellar temperature and an even stranger metal abundance. So what’s going on here? Chances are the Delta pair are really class F subgiants that have just ended core hydrogen fusion and both slightly variable. Do they orbit close to one another? You bet. So close, in fact, there orbit is only about the same distance as Mercury is from our Sun!

Now let’s take out the telescopes and have a look at NGC 7006 (RA 21h 1m 29.4 Dec +16 11′ 14.4) just a few arc minutes due east of Gamma. At magnitude 10, this small and powerful globular cluster might be mistaken for a stellar point in small telescopes at low power, for a very good reason… it’s very, very far away.

It is thought to be about 125 thousand light years from the galaxy’s core and over 135 thousand light years from us – far, far beyond the galaxy’s halo where it belongs. Even though it is a Class 1 globular, the most star dense in the Shapely?Sawyer classification system, and many observers comment that it looks more planetary nebula than it does a globular cluster!

Delphinus Constellation Map. Credit: IAU and Sky&Telescope magazine

Try NGC 6934 instead (RA 20 : 34.2 Dec +07 : 24) . This 50,000 light year distant globular cluster is much brighter and larger, though at Class VIII it doesn’t even come close to having as much stellar concentration. Discovered by Sir William Herschel on September 24, 1785, you’ll enjoy this one just for the rich star field that accompanies it. For larger telescope, you’ll enjoy the resolution and the study in contrasts between these two pairs.

Now let’s take a look at 12th magnitude planetary nebula, NGC 6891 (RA 20 : 15.2 Dec +12 : 42). Here we have an almost stellar appearance, but get tight on that focus and up the magnification to reveal its nature. This is anything but a star. As Martin A. Guerrero (et al) indicated in a 1999 study:

“Narrow-band and echelle spectroscopy observations show a great wealth of structures. The bright central nebula is surrounded by an attached shell and a detached outer halo. Both the inner and intermediate shells can be described as ellipsoids with similar major to minor axial ratios, but different spatial orientations. The kinematical ages of the intermediate shell and halo are 4800 and 28000 years, respectively. The inter-shell time lapse is in good agreement with the evolutionary inter-pulse time lapse. A highly collimated outflow is observed to protrude from the tips of the major axis of the inner nebula and impact on the outer edge of the intermediate shell. Kinematics and excitation of this outflow provide conclusive evidence that it is deflected during the interaction with the outer edge of the intermediate shell.”

If you’d like a real, big, telescope galaxy challenge, try galaxy group NGC 6927, NGC 6928 and NGC 6930. The brightest is NGC 6928 at magnitude 13.5, (RA 20h 32m 51.0s Dec: +09°55’49”). None of them will be easy… But what challenge is?

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

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

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

Sources:

The Cygnus Constellation

Welcome to another edition of Constellation Friday! Today, in honor of the late and great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the “Swan” – the Cygnus constellation. Enjoy!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of all the then-known 48 constellations. This treatise, known as the Almagest, would be used by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come, effectively becoming astrological and astronomical canon until the early Modern Age.

One of the constellations identified by Ptolemy was Cygnus, otherwise known as “the Swan”. The constellation is easy to find in the sky because it features a well-known asterism known as the Northern Cross. Cygnus was first catalogued the by Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the 2nd century CE and is today one of the 88 recognized by the IAU. It is bordered by the constellations of Cepheus, Draco, Lyra, Vulpecula, Pegasus and Lacerta.

Name and Meaning:

Because the pattern of stars so easily resembles a bird in flight, Cygnus the “Swan” has a long and rich mythological history. To the ancient Greeks, it was at one time Zeus disguising himself to win over Leda, and eventually father Gemini, Helen of Troy, and Clytemnestra. Or perhaps it is poor Orpheus, musician and muse of the gods, who when he died was transformed into a swan and placed in the stars next to his beloved lyre.

Artist’s conception of what Cygnus’ figure looks like, against the backdrop of stars that make up the constellation. Credit: Wendy Stenzel (first published on NASA Kepler website)

It could be king Cycnus, a relative of Phaethon, son of Apollo, who crashed dear old dad’s fiery sky chariot and died. Cygcus was believed to have driven up and down the starry river so many times looking for Phaethon’s remains that he was finally transformed into stars. No matter what legend you choose, Cygnus is a fascinating place… and filled with even more fascinating areas to visit!

History of Observation:

Because of its importance in ancient Greek mythology and astrology, the sprawling constellation of Cygnus was one of Ptolemy’s original 48 constellations. To Hindu astronomers, the Cygnus constellation is also associated with the “Brahma Muhurta” (“Moment of the Universe”). This period, which lasts from 4:24 AM to 5:12 AM, is considered to be the best time to start the day.

Cygnus is also highly significant to the folklore and mythology of many people in Polynesia, who also viewed it as a separate constellation. These include the people of Tonga, the Tuamatos people, the Maori (New Zealand) and the people of the Society Islands. Today, Cygnus is one of the official 88 modern constellations recognized by the IAU.

Notable Objects:

Flying across the sky in a grand position against the backdrop of the Milky Way, Cygnus consists of 6 bright stars which form an asterism of a cross comprised of 9 main stars and there are 84 Bayer/Flamsteed designated stars within its confines. It’s most prominent star, Deneb (Alpha Cygni), takes it name from the Arabic word dhaneb, which is derived from the Arabic phrase Dhanab ad-Dajajah, which means “the tail of the hen”.

Cygnus as depicted in Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c.1825. Surrounding it are Lacerta, Vulpecula and Lyra. Credit: Sidney Hall/US Library of Congress

Deneb is a blue-white supergiant belonging to the spectral class A2 Ia, and is located approximately 1,400 light years from Earth. In addition to being the brightest star in Cygnus, it is one of the most luminous stars known. Being almost 60,000 times more luminous than our Sun and about 20 Solar masses, it is also one of the largest white stars known.

Deneb serves as a prototype for a class of variable stars known as the Alpha Cygni variables, whose brightness and spectral type fluctuate slightly as a result of non-radial fluctuations of the star’s surface. Deneb has stopped fusing hydrogen in its core and is expected to explode as a supernova within the next few million years. Together with the stars of Altair and Vega, Deneb forms the Summer Triangle, a prominent asterism in the summer sky.

Next up is Gamma Cygni (aka. Sadr), whose name comes from the Arabic word for “the chest”. It is also sometimes known by its Latin name, Pectus Gallinae, which means “the hen’s chest.” This star belongs to the spectral class F8 lad, making it a blue-white supergiant, and is located approximately 1,800 light years from Earth.

It can easily seen in the night sky at the intersection of the Northern Cross thanks to its apparent magnitude of 2.23, which makes it one of the brightest stars that can be seen in the night sky. It is also believed to be only about 12 million years old and consumes its nuclear fuel more rapidly because of its mass (12 Solar masses).

Gamma Cygni (Sadr) is surrounded by a diffuse emission nebula, IC 1318, also known as the Sadr region or the Gamma Cygni region. Credit: Eric Larsen

Then there’s Epsilon Cygni (ak. Glenah), an orange giant of the spectral class K0 III that is 72.7 light years distant. It’s traditional name comes from the Arabic word janah, which means “the wing” (this name is shared with Gamma Corvi, a star in the Corvus constellation). It is 62 times more luminous than the Sun and measures 11 Solar radii.

Delta Cygni (Rukh), is a triple star system in Cygnus, which is located about 165 light years away. The system consists of two stars lying close together and a third star located a little further from the main pair. The brightest component is a blue-white fast-rotating giant belonging to the spectral class B9 III. The star’s closer companion is a yellow-white star belonging to the spectral class F1 V, while the third component is an orange giant.

Last, there’s Beta Cygni (aka. Albireo) which is only the fifth brightest star in the constellation Cygnus, despite its designation. This binary star system, which appears as a single star to the naked eye, is approximately 380 light-years distant. The traditional name is the result of multiple translations and misunderstandings of the original Arabic name, minqar al-dajaja (“the hen’s beak”). It is one of the stars that form the Northern Cross.

The binary system consists of a yellow star which is itself a close binary star that cannot be resolved as two separate objects. Its second star is a fainter blue fast-rotating companion star with an apparent magnitude of 5.82 that is located 35 arc seconds apart from its primary.

Albireo A, the primary star of Beta Cygni (which is itself a binary system). Credit: Henryk Kowalewski

Cygnus is also home to a number of Deep Sky Objects. These include Messier 29 (NGC 6913), an open star cluster that is about 10 million years old and located about 4,000 light years from Earth. It can be spotted with binoculars a short distance away from Gamma Cygni – 1.7 degrees to the south and a little east.

Next up is Messier 39 (NGC 7092), another open star cluster that is located about 800 light-years away and is between 200 and 300 million years old. All the stars observed in this cluster are in their main sequence phase and the brightest ones will soon evolve to the red giant stage. The cluster can be found two and a half degrees west and a degree south of the star Pi-2 Cygni.

There is also the Fireworks Galaxy (NGC 6946), an intermediate spiral galaxy that is approximately 22.5 million light-years distant. The galaxy is located near the border of the constellation Cepheus and lies close to the galactic plane, where causes it to become obscured by the interstellar matter of the Milky Way.

Then there’s the famous X-ray source known as Cygnus X-1, which is one of the strongest that can be seen from Earth. Cygnus X-1 is notable for being the first X-ray source to be identified as a black hole candidate, with a mass 8.7 times that of the Sun. It orbits a blue supergiant variable star some 6,100 light-years away, which is one of two stars form a binary system.

Over time, an accretion disk of material brought from the star by a stellar wind has formed around Cygnus X-1, which is the source of its X-ray emissions.

Finding Cygnus:

Cygnus is visible to all observers at latitudes between +90° and -40° and is best seen at culmination during the month of September.  For a period of 15 days around the peak date of August 20, watch for the Kappa Cygnid meteor shower. This annual meteor shower has a radiant near the bright star Deneb and an average fall rate of about 12 meteors per hour. It is noted to have many bright fire balls called “bolides” and the best time to watch is when the constellation is directly overhead.

Because Cygus is so rich in things to visit, we shall only touch very briefly on just a few. Let’s begin with our unaided eye as we take a look at the brightest star of the constellation, Alpha Cygni – Deneb. Here we have not only an extremely luminous blue super giant star – but a pulsing variable star, too. Its changes are minor – only about 1/10 of a stellar magnitude, but Deneb is its own prototype.

Its stellar oscillations are very complex, consisting of multiple pulsation frequencies as well as a fundamental one. This means changes in brightness occur between 5 and 10 days apart, but that’s a good thing. If the changes weren’t small, Deneb would blow itself to bits!

If you are looking at Cygnus for an area well away from city lights on a night when there is no Moon, look just northwest of Deneb for the North America Nebula (NGC 7000). This is an excellent emission nebula that covers as much area of the sky as 10 full Moons! At 3 full degrees, you’ll be looking for a vague, misty patch of silver-ness that about as broad as your thumb held at arm’s length.

While telescopes and binoculars are grand, remember this particular region is so large that you can easily over magnify it and often your unaided eye is all you need to catch this elusive interstellar cloud of ionized hydrogen (H II region). Now, get out your binoculars and let’s dance!

Messier 29 is very easy and bright and you can find it about a fingerwidth south and a little east of Gamma Cygni – the “8” shape on our map. This open cluster of stars has just a handful of bright members and will look like a small rendition of the “Big Dipper”. M29 is about 7,200 light years away from Earth, so the fact we can see it at all in binoculars is pretty impressive! Now, try Messier 39.

You’ll find this one about a fingerwidth west and southwest of Pi2, which looks like TT2 on our map. This galactic star cluster is far brighter and richer than the last. It will show as a triangle shape with bright stars in each corner and a couple of dozen fainter stars captured within the center. M39 is only about 800 light years away from our solar system, but it could be as much as 300 million years old!

Don’t put your binoculars away just yet. You’ve got to visit Omega 2 before you stop! Its name is Ruchbah and it’s a double star about 500 light years from Earth, consisting of a magnitude 5.44 star of spectral class M2 and a 6.6 magnitude star of spectral class A0. The stars are well separated at 256″ apart and can be seen in binoculars and totally glorious in a telescope. Because of the color contrast (red main star and blue companion), Ruchba is a beautiful object for amateur astronomers.

The northern Cygnus constellation. Credit: IAU

Now try Beta Cygni – Albireo. It is also known as one of the most attractive and colorful double stars in the sky. Beautiful Beta 1 is an orange giant K star and Beta 2 is a main-sequence B star of a soft, blue hue. If you can’t separate them in your binoculars, use a telescope! This seasonal favorite is one that’s not to be missed! Now, let’s try a couple objects for the telescope.

One of the true prizes of the Cygnus region for any telescope is the Holy Veil (NGC 6960, 6962, 6979, 6992, and 6995). You’ll find it just south of Epsilon Cygni and the easiest segment to find is 6960, which runs through the star 52 Cygni. This is an ancient supernova remnant covering approximately 3 degrees of the sky and an experience you won’t soon forget if you are viewing from a dark sky site.

The source supernova exploded some 5,000 to 8,000 years ago and it is simply amazing to think that anything remains to be seen. It was discovered on 1784 September 5 by William Herschel. He described the western end of the nebula as “Extended; passes thro’ 52 Cygni… near 2 degree in length.” and described the eastern end as “Branching nebulosity… The following part divides into several streams uniting again towards the south.”

Even though it is any where from from 1,400 to 2,600 light-years light years away, you’ll find long and wondrous tongues of material to capture your interest and delight your eye and you follow them to their ends!

More challenging is the Crescent Nebula (NGC 6888 or Caldwell 27) located at RA 20h 12m 7s Dec +38 21.3′. This is an emission nebula fueled by a Wolf-Rayet star located about 5000 light years away. It is formed by the fast stellar wind careening off illuminating the slower moving wind ejected by the star when it went into the red giant star stage. What’s left is a collision… a shell and two shock waves… one moving outward and one moving inward. A what a grand one it is!

The Fireworks Galaxy (NGC 6946) taken by the Subaru Telescope. Credit: NAOJ/Robert Gendler

For galaxy fans, you have got to point your telescope towards NGC 6946, the “Fireworks Galaxy” (RA 20h 34m 52.3s Dec +60 09 14). Who cares if this barred spiral galaxy 10 million light years away? This is one supernovae active baby! At one time, it was widely believed that NGC 6946 was a member of our Local Group; mainly because it could be easily resolved into stars.

There was a reddening observed in it, believed to be indicative of distance – but now know to be caused by interstellar dust. But it isn’t the shrouding dust cloud that makes NGC 6946 so interesting, it’s the fact that so many supernova and star-forming events have sparkled in its arms in the last few years that has science puzzled! So many, in fact, that they’ve been recorded every year or two for the last 60 years…

Now, for the really cool part – understanding barred structure. Thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope and a study of more than 2,000 spiral galaxies – the Cosmic Evolution Survey (COSMOS) – astronomers understand that barred spiral structure just didn’t occur very often some 7 billion years ago in the local universe. Bar formation in spiral galaxies evolved over time.

A team led by Kartik Sheth of the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena discovered that only 20 percent of the spiral galaxies in the distant past possessed bars, compared with nearly 70 percent of their modern counterparts. This makes NGC 6946 very rare, indeed… Since its barred structure was noted back in Herschel’s time and its age of 10 billion years puts it beyond what is considered a “modern” galaxy.

It that all there is? Not hardly. Try NGC 6883, an open cluster located about 3 degrees east/northeast of Eta Cygni. It’s a nice, tight cluster that involves a well-resolved double star and a bonus open cluster – Biurakan 2 – as well. Or how about NGC 6826 located about 1.3 degrees east/northeast of Theta. This one is totally cool… the “Blinking Planetary”!

This planetary nebula is fairly bright and so is the central star… but don’t stare at it, or it will disappear! Look at it averted and the central star will appear again. Neat trick, huh? Now try NGC 6819 about 8 degrees west of Gamma. Here you’ll find a very rich, bright open cluster of about 100 stars that’s sure to please. It’s also known as Best 42!

There’s many more objects in Cygnus than just what’s listed here, so grab yourself a good star chart and fly with the “Swan”!

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

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

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

Sources:

The Crater Constellation

Welcome to another edition of Constellation Friday! Today, in honor of the late and great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at “The Cup” – the Crater constellation. Enjoy!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of all the then-known 48 constellations. This treatise, known as the Almagest, would be used by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come, effectively becoming astrological and astronomical canon until the early Modern Age

One of these constellation is Crater (aka. “The Cup”), an asterism located in the Southern Hemisphere. This small constellation is located south of the ecliptic plane, with no bright marker stars. As part of the Hercules family, it is bordered by the constellations of Leo, Sextans, Hydra, Corvus and Virgo. Today, it is one of the 88 modern constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union.

Name and Meaning:

In Greek mythology, Crater represents the Cup of Apollo – the god of the skies – which is due to its chalice-like configuration. The cup is being held up by the Raven – Corvus – another figure in Greek mythology. The tale, much like many mythological stories, is a sad one, and begins with the Raven being sent to fetch water for his master, Apollo.

Unfortunately, Corvus (the Raven) was distracted as he became tempted by a fig, and then waited too long for it to ripen. When he realized his mistake, he returned sorrowfully to Apollo with his cup (Crater) and brought along the serpent Hydra in his claws as well. Angry, Apollo tossed all three into the sky for all eternity, where they became part of the starry firmament.

Corvus, Crater and other constellations seen around Hydra. From Urania's Mirror (1825). Credit: US Library of Congress
Corvus, Crater and other constellations seen around Hydra. From Urania’s Mirror (1825). Credit: US Library of Congress

History of Observation:

The Crater constellation comes to us from Classical Antiquity and was recorded by Ptolemy in his 2nd-century CE tract the Almagest. However, it was also recognized by Chinese astronomers, where the stars associated with it were viewed as being part the Vermillion Bird of the South (Nan Fang Zhu Que). Along with the some of the stars from Hydra, they depict the Red Bird’s wings.

Notable Objects:

Crater has only a few bright stars associated with it and no Messier Objects. The brightest, Delta Crateris, is an orange giant located approximately 196 light yeas from Earth. The star is also known as Labrum (Latin for “the lip”), due to the fact that it was sometimes associated with the story of the Holy Grail.

Next is Alpha Crateris, an orange giant located approximately 174 light-years from Earth which is 80 times more luminous than our Sun. It is also known as Alkes, derived from the Arabic word alkas, which means “the cup”. Then there’s Beta Crateris, a white sub-giant that is located approximately 266 light years from Earth. This star is also known by the name Al Sharasif, which means “the ribs” in Arabic.

In terms of Deep Sky Objects, Crater has no associated Messier Objects, but a few galaxies can be found in its region of the night sky. These include the Crater 2 dwarf galaxy, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way that is located approximately 380,000 light years from Earth. There’s also the spiral galaxy known as NGC 3511, which has a slight bar and is seen from Earth nearly edge-on.

The spiral galaxy NGC 3887, located in the constellation Crater. Credit: NASA (Wikisky)

There’s also the NGC 3887 and NGC 2981 spiral galaxies, and the RX J1131 quasar, which is located 6 billion light years away from Earth. Interestingly, the black hole at the center of this quasar was the first to have its spin directly measured by astronomers.

Finding Crater:

Crater is visible at latitudes between +65° and -90° and is best seen at culmination during the month of April. It is comprised of only 4 main stars, and 12 stars with Bayer/Flamsteed designations. In order to spot these stars, observers should begin by looking for the Alpha star (the “a” shape on their star map) with binoculars.

Situated some 174 light-years from Earth, Alpha Crateris (the star’s official designation) is a spectral class K1 star – an orange giant that’s a little different from the rest. This is because Alkes is a “high velocity” star, which means it moves far faster than the stars around it. Another thing that sets it apart is its high metal content, which according to some researchers, it may have picked up when it came from the inner, metal-rich part of the Galaxy.

Artist's impression of Alkes - aka. Alpha Crateris. Credit: constellation-guide.com
Artist’s impression of Alkes – aka. Alpha Crateris – a K1 orange giant star in the Crater constellation. Credit: constellation-guide.com

Next, observers should look to Beta Crateris (the “B” shape on the map) which also goes by the name of Al Sharasif. This star is not an ordinary one either. For starters, Al Sharasif is about 265 light-years from our solar system, and it’s a white sub-giant star. To boot, it also has a low mass, white dwarf companion – which is why astronomers classify it as a Sirius-like system.

Next up is Delta Crateris – the “8” symbol on the map – which is an orange giant, spectral class K0III star with an apparent magnitude of 3.56. In time, this star will become an even larger giant, eventually turning into a Mira-type variable star before ending its life as a white dwarf. Oddly enough, Labrum has a very low metal content compared to its Crater-neighbors, containing about 40% as much iron as our own Sun.

At this point, observers with telescopes and have a look at Gamma Crateris – the “Y” shape on the map. Gamma Crateris is a fixed binary white dwarf star with an easy separation of 5.2″. Gamma itself is 89 light-years for Earth, which is rather hard to believe when you try to seek out the 9.5 stellar magnitude companion that accompanies it.

Although this is a disparate double star, it is still quite fun and easy to spot with a small telescope. For a challenge, try Iota Crateris – a close binary star with an 11th magnitude companion that’s only separated by 1.4″. Psi Crateris is an even closer binary. Both stars are within a half magnitude of each other, but the separation is only 0.2″.

Artist's impression of white dwarf binary pair CSS 41177. Image: Andrew Taylor.
Artist’s impression of white dwarf binary pair, a type of star system that describes Gamma Crateris. Credit: Andrew Taylor.

Next up is R Crateris, a variable star that can be observed with binoculars, and which is located at RA 10 56 Dec -17 47. You will notice it by its lovely red color and its nice change of magnitude, which goes from 8 to 9.5 in a period of about 160 days. And then there’s SZ Crateris, a magnitude 8.1 variable star. It is a nearby star system located about 44 light years from the Sun and is known as Gliese 425 – which in the past was known as Abt’s Star.

While there’s no brighter deep sky objects for binoculars or small telescopes, there are a couple of challenging galaxies in the Crater constellation that are well suited to a large aperture. Let’s start with the brightest – elliptical galaxy NGC 3962 – which is easy to spot (like all elliptical galaxies), though there’s not much detail to be seen. Even if it is not terribly exciting to behold, it is on the Herschel 400 observing list.

And then there’s NGC 3887 (11h47.1 -16 51), a nice spiral galaxy that’s only slightly fainter. It has two faint stars which accompany it and a stellar nucleus which occasionally makes an appearance and provides an opportunity for some very interesting viewing. Both of these galaxies are in the slightly fainter range, both being just under magnitude 11.

Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)
List of the stars that appear in the Crater constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine/Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg

Observers who are skilled with telescopes should also keep and eye out for NGC 3511 (11h03.4 -23 05), a spiral galaxy of magnitude 11.5. It is joined in the same field of view by NGC 3513, a barred spiral galaxy that is a full magnitude dimmer. People with larger telescopes should also take a crack at spotting NGC 3672 (11h25.0 -09 48), a faint spiral galaxy that nevertheless has nice halo and a bright, apparent nucleus.

And last, but not least, there is NGC 3981 (11h56.1 -19 54), a beautifully inclined, magnitude 12 spiral galaxy that has a bright nucleus, and which sometimes shows some spiral galaxy structure when observing conditions are right.

Drink up… the “Cup” is waiting!

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

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

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

Sources:

The Corvus Constellation

Welcome to another edition of Constellation Friday! Today, in honor of the late and great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the “Raven” – the Corvus constellation. Enjoy!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of all the then-known 48 constellations. This treatise, known as the Almagest, would be used by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come, effectively becoming astrological and astronomical canon until the early Modern Age.

One of these constellation is the Corvus constellation, a southern constellation whose name in Latin means “the Raven”. Bordered by the constellations of Virgo, Crater and Hydra, it is visible at latitudes between +60° and -90° and is best seen at culmination during the month of May. Today, it is one of the 88 modern constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU).

Name and Meaning:

In classical mythology, Corvus represents the Raven, and is both a charming and sad tale. Legend tells us that the constellation of Crater is the cup of the gods. This cup belonged to the god of the skies himself, the venerable archer-god Apollo. And who holds this cup, dressed in black? The Raven, Corvus.

“Noctua, Corvus, Crater, Sextans Uraniæ, Hydra, Felis, Lupus, Centaurus, Antlia Pneumatica, Argo Navis, and Pyxis Nautica”, plate 32 in Urania’s Mirror, by Sidney Hall. Credit: Library of Congress

The story of a creature sent to fetch water for his master, only to stop to eat figs. Corvus tarried too long, waiting on a fig to ripen. When he realized his mistake, the Raven returned to Apollo with his cup and brought along the serpent Hydra in his claws as well, claiming that the snake prevented him from filling the cup.

Realizing his feathered-friend’s lie, Apollo became angry and tossed the cup (Crater), the snake (Hydra) and the raven (Corvus) into the sky, where they became constellations for all eternity. He further punished the raven by making sure the cup would be out of reach, thus ensuring he would forever be thirsty.

History of Observation:

As with most of the 48 constellations recorded by Ptolemy, the Corvus constellation has roots that go back to ancient Mesopotamia. In the Babylonian star catalogues (dated to ca. 1100 BCE), Corvus was called the Babylonian Raven (MUL.UGA.MUSHEN), which sat on the tail of the Serpent – which was associated with Ningishzida, the Babylonian god of the underworld. This constellation was also sacred to the god of rains and storm (Adad).

By about 500 BCE, this constellation was introduced to the Greeks, along with Crater, Hydra, Aquila and Piscis Austrinus constellations. By the 2nd century CE, they were included by Ptolemy in his Almagest, which would remain the definitive source on astronomy and astrology to Medieval European and Islamic astronomers for many centuries.

In Chinese astronomy, the stars that make up Corvus are located within the Vermilion Bird of the South (Nán Fang Zhu Què). The four main stars depict a chariot (Zhen) while Alpha and Eta mark the linchpins for the wheels, and Zeta represents a coffin (Changsha).

In Indian astronomy, the first five stars in Corvus correspond to the Hast nakshatra – a lunar zodiacal constellation. This is one of is one of the 27 or 28 divisions of the sky, identified by the prominent stars in them, that the Moon passes through during its monthly cycle. While it is Hindu, it is still very similar to the divisions of the ecliptic plane referred to as the zodiac. The Moon takes approximately one day to pass through each nakshatra.

Notable Objects:

This small, box-like asterism has no bright star and consists of 11 stars which are visible to the unaided eye, yet Ptolemy only listed 7! There are 4 main stars and 10 which have Bayer/Flamsteed designations. For unaided eye observers, the Delta, Gamma, Epsilon and Beta (what appears to look like a figure 8, Y, E and B on the map) form an asterism that looks like a “sail”, and when connected seem to point to the bright star Spica.

The brightest star in Corvus is not even its alpha, but is Gamma Corvi. This giant star (which is thought to be a binary system) is located approximately 165 light years from Earth and is also known as Gienah, which comes from the Arabic phrase al-janah al-ghirab al-yaman (“the right wing of the crow”).

Antennae Galaxies – NGC 4038, NGC 4039. Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI, AURA)-ESA, Hubble Collaboration

The second-brightest star, Beta Corvi, is a yellow-white G-type bright giant that is located about 140 light years from Earth. Its proper name, Kraz, was assigned to it in modern times, but the origin of the name is uncertain. Delta Corvi is a class A0 star in Corvus located approximately 87 light years distant from Earth whose traditional name (Algorab) comes from the Arabic word al-ghuraab – which means “the crow.”

Epsilon Corvi is a K2 III class star that is approximately 303 light-years from Earth. The star’s traditional name, (Minkar) comes from the Arabic word almánxar, which means “the nostril of the crow.” Alpha Corvi, which is only the fifth brightest star in the constellation, is a class F0 dwarf or subdwarf that is only 48.2 light years distant. The star’s traditional name (Alchiba) is derived from the Arabic al hibaa, which means “tent.”

Corvus is also home to many Deep Sky Objects. These include the Antennae Galaxies (NGC 4038/NGC 4039), a pair of interacting galaxies that were first discovered in the late 18th century. These colliding galaxies – which are located 45 million light years from Earth – are currently in the starburst stage, meaning they are experiencing an exceptionally high rate of star forming activity.

There’s also the NGC 4027 barred spiral galaxy, which is located about 83 million light years from Earth. This galaxy is peculiar, in that one of its spiral arm extends further than the other – possibly due to a past collision with another galaxy. Finally, there’s the large planetary nebula known as NGC 4361, which is located at the center of the constellation and resembled a faint elliptical galaxy.

The barred, spiral galaxy known as NGC 4027. Credit : ESO

Finding Corvus:

Let’s start with binoculars and look down at the southern corner, where we will find Alpha Corvi – aka. Alchiba. Alchiba belongs to the spectral class F0 and has apparent magnitude +4.00. This star is suspected of being a spectroscopic binary, although this has not yet been confirmed. Now take a look at Beta Corvi – aka. Kraz. Good old Kraz is approximately 140 light-years away and is a G-type bright giant star whose apparent visual magnitude varies between 2.60 and 2.66.

Head west and look at Epsilon. Although it doesn’t look any further away, spectral class K2 III – Minkar – is 303 light-years from Earth! Need a smile? Then take a look at Gamma, aka. Geinah. How about Delta? Algorab is a spectral class A0 and is about 87 light years from our solar system.

Now get out your telescope as we explore planetary nebula, NGC 4361 (RA 12 24 5 Dec -18 48). At around magnitude 10, this greenish disc is fairly easily spotted with smaller telescopes, but the 13th stellar magnitude central star requires larger aperture to be seen. It has a very symmetrical shape that is similar to a spiral galaxy.

For galaxy fans, have a look at interacting galaxy pair, NGC 4038 and NGC 4039 – the “Ringtail Galaxy” (RA 12 01 53 Dec -18 52-3). This peculiar galaxy (also referred to as the “Antennae Galaxies”) were both discovered by Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel in 1785. Even in relatively small telescopes, you can see two long tails of stars, gas and dust thrown out of the galaxies as a result of the collision that resemble the antennae of an insect.

Map of the Corvus Constellation. Credit: IAU and Sky&Telescope magazine

As explained by Vázquez (et al.) in a 1999 study:

“The morphology of this object is complex given the highly filamentary structure of the envelope, which is confirmed to possess a low mass. The halo has a high expansion velocity that yields incompatible kinematic and evolutionary ages, unless previous acceleration of the nebular expansion is considered. However, the most remarkable result from the present observations is the detection of a bipolar outflow in NGC 4361, which is unexpected in a PN with a Population II low-mass-core progenitor. It is shown that shocks resulting from the interaction of the bipolar outflow with the outer shell are able to provide an additional heating source in this nebula.”

Most galaxies probably undergo at least one significant collision in their lifetimes. This is likely the future of our Milky Way when it collides with the Andromeda Galaxy. Two supernovae have been discovered in the galaxy: SN 2004GT and SN 2007sr. A recent study finds that these interacting galaxies are closer to the Milky Way than previously thought – at 45 million light-years instead of 65 million light-years. Geez… What’s 20 million light years between friends?

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

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

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

Sources:

The Corona Australis Constellation

Welcome back to Constellation Friday! Today, in honor of the late and great Tammy Plotner, we will be dealing with the “Southern Crown” – the Corona Australis constellation!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of all the then-known 48 constellations. This treatise, known as the Almagest, would be used by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come, effectively becoming astrological and astronomical canon until the early Modern Age.

One of these was the Coronoa Australis constellation, otherwise known as the “Southern Crown”.  This small, southern constellation is one of the faintest in the night sky, where it is bordered by the constellations of Sagittarius, Scorpius, Ara and Telescopium. Today, it is one of the 88 modern constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union.

Name and Meaning:

Corona Australis – the “Southern Crown” – is the counterpart to Corona Borealis – the “Northern Crown”. To the ancient Greeks, this constellation wasn’t seen as a crown, but a laurel wreath. According to some myths, Dionysus was supposed to have placed a wreath of myrtle as a gift to his dead mother into the underworld as well. Either way, this small circlet of dim stars definitely has the appearance of a wreath – or crown – and belongs to legend!

False-colour image from the ESO’s Very Large Telescope of the star-forming region NGC 6729. Credit: ESO

History of Observation:

Like many of the Greek constellations, it is believed that Corona Australis was recorded by the ancient Mesopotamian in the MUL.APIN – where it may have been called MA.GUR (“The Bark”). While recorded by the Greeks as early as the 3rd century BCE, it was not until Ptolemy’s time (2nd century CE) that it was recorded as the “Southern Wreath”, a name that has stuck ever since.

In Chinese astronomy, the stars of Corona Australis are located within the Black Tortoise of the North and were known as ti’en pieh (“Heavenly Turtle”). During the Western Zhou period, the constellation marked the beginning of winter. To medieval Islamic astronomers, Corona Australis was known alternately as Al Kubbah (“the Tortoise”), Al Hiba (“the Tent”) or Al Udha al Na’am (“the Ostrich Nest”).

In 1920, the constellation was included in the list of 88 constellations formally recognized by the IAU.

Notable Objects:

Corona Australis is a small, faint constellation that has no bright stars, consists of 6 primary stars and contains 14 stellar members with Bayer/Flamsteed designations. There is one meteor shower associated with Corona Australis – the Corona-Australids which peak on or about March 16 each year and are active between March 14th through the 18th. The fall rate is minimal, with an average of about 5 to 7 per hour.

It’s brightest star, Alpha Coronae Australis (Alphekka Meridiana), is a class A2V star located about 130 light years from Earth. It is also the only properly-named star in the constellation. It’s second brightest star, Beta Coronae Australis, is a K-type bright giant located approximately 510 light years distant.

And then there’s R Coronae Australis, a well-known variable star that is located approximately 26.8 light years from Earth. This relatively young star is still in the process of formation – accreting material onto its surface from a circumstellar disk – and is located within a star forming region of dust and gas known as NGC 6726/27/29.

Corona Australis is also home to several Deep Sky Objects, such as the Corona Australis Nebula. This bright reflection nebula, which is located about 420 light years away, was formed when several bright stars became entangled with a dark cloud of dust. The cloud is a star-forming region, with clusters of young stars embedded inside, and consists of three nebulous regions – NGC 6726, NGC 6727, and NGC 6729.

Other reflection nebulas include NGC 6726/6727 and the fan-shaped NGC 6729. Corona Australis also boasts many star clusters, such as the large, bright globular cluster known as NGC 6541. There’s also the Coronet cluster, a small open star cluster that is located approximately 420 light years from Earth. The cluster lies at the heart of the constellation and is one of the nearest known regions that experiences ongoing star formation.

Color image of the Coronet Australis Nebula, taken by NASA’s WISE (Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer). Credit: NASA/Caltech

Finding Corona Australis:

Corona Australis is visible at latitudes between +40° and -90° and is best seen at culmination during the month of August. It can be explored using both binoculars and small telescopes. Let’s start with binoculars and a look at Alpha Coronae Australis – the only star in the constellation to have a proper name.

Called Alfecca Meridiana – or “the sixth star in the river Turtle” – Alpha is a spectral class A2V star which is located about 160 light years from Earth. Alfecca Meridiana is a fast rotator, spinning at least at 180 kilometers per second at its equator, 90 times faster than our Sun and making a full rotation in about 18 hours.

Even more interesting is the fact that Alpha is a Vega-like star, pouring out excess infrared radiation that appears to be coming from a surrounding disk of cool dust. Just what does that mean? It means that Alfecca Meridiana could possibly have a planetary system!

Now have a look at Beta. Although this orange class K (K0) giant star is rather ordinary, where it’s at is not. It’s sitting on the edge of the Corona Australis Molecular Cloud, a dusty, dark star-forming region which contains huge amounts of nebulae. While Beta does seem pretty plain, it is almost 5 times larger than our Sun and 730 times brighter. Not bad for a star that’s about a hundred million years old!

Image of the globular cluster NGC 6541 in Corona Australis, based on observations made with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: STScI/NASA/ST-ECF/ESA/CADC/NRC/CSA.

Now, take a look at a really bizarre star – Epsilon Coronae Australis. At a distance of 98 light years, there doesn’t seem to be much going on with this fifth magnitude, faint stellar point, but there is. That’s because Epsilon isn’t one star – but two. Epsilon is an eclipsing binary with two very similar eclipses that take place within an orbital period of 0.5914264 days, as first a faint star passes in front of the bright one that gives us 95 or so percent of the light, and then the bright one passes in front of the fainter.

So what does that mean? It means that if you sit right there at watch, you can see the changes in less than 7 hours. While watching for hours for a half magnitude drop might not seem like your cup of tea, think about what you’re watching…. These two stars are actually contacting each other as they go by! Can you imagine stars spinning so fast that they produce huge amounts of magnetic activity and dark starspots that also add to the variation as they swing in and out of view? Sharing mass and pulling at each other in just a matter of hours? Now that’s a show worth watching…

Now try variable star R Coronae Borealis (RA 19 53 65 Dec -36 57 97). Here we have another unusual one – a “Herbig Ae/Be” pre-main sequence star. The star is an irregular variable with more frequent outbursts during times of greater average brightness, but it also has a long-term periodic variation of about 1,500 days and about 1/2 magnitude that may be linked to changes in its circumstellar shell, rather than to stellar pulsations. Although R Coronae Australis is 40 times brighter than Sol, and about 2 to 10 times larger, most of its stellar luminosity is obscured because the star is still accreting matter. Protoplanetary bodies? Maybe!

Keep your binoculars handy and get out the telescope as we start deep sky first with NGC 6541. Also known as Caldwell 78 and Bennett 104, this beautiful 6th magnitude globular cluster was first discovered by N. Cacciatore on March 19, 1826. It belongs in our Milky Way galaxy’s inner halo structure and it is rather metal poor in structure – but beautifully resolved in a telescope. In binoculars, this splendid southern sky study will appear as a large faint globular with a bright star to the northeast.

The location of the southern constellation of Corona Astralis. Credit: IAU/ Sky&Telescope magazine

Now head for the telescope and NGC 6496 (RA 17 59 0 Dec -44 16). At right around magnitude 9, this globular cluster also has a bonus nebula attached to it. Collectively known as Bennett 100, Dreyer described it as a “nebula plus cluster” but it will take dark skies to make out both. Look for 5th magnitude star SAO 228562 that accompanies it. In a small telescope, only a hazy, faint patch can be seen, but larger aperture does get some resolution.

Try emission/reflection nebula NGC 6729 (RA 19 01 55 Dec -36 57 30) next. In a wide field, you can place NGC 6726, NGC 6727, NGC 6729 and the double star BSO 14 in the same eyepiece. The three nebulae NGC 6726-27, and NGC 6729 were discovered by Johann Friedrich Julius Schmidt, during his observations at Athen Observatory in 1861. The nebula are very faint and almost comet-like in appearance and the double star is easily split. Don’t forget to mark your notes as having captured Caldwell 68!

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

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

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

Sources:

Do Stars Move? Tracking Their Movements Across the Sky

How Fast Are Stars Moving?


The night sky, is the night sky, is the night sky. The constellations you learned as a child are the same constellations that you see today. Ancient people recognized these same constellations. Oh sure, they might not have had the same name for it, but essentially, we see what they saw.

But when you see animations of galaxies, especially as they come together and collide, you see the stars buzzing around like angry bees. We know that the stars can have motions, and yet, we don’t see them moving?

How fast are they moving, and will we ever be able to tell?

Stars, of course, do move. It’s just that the distances are so great that it’s very difficult to tell. But astronomers have been studying their position for thousands of years. Tracking the position and movements of the stars is known as astrometry.

We trace the history of astrometry back to 190 BC, when the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus first created a catalog of the 850 brightest stars in the sky and their position. His student Ptolemy followed up with his own observations of the night sky, creating his important document: the Almagest.

Printed rendition of a geocentric cosmological model from Cosmographia, Antwerp, 1539. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Fastfission

In the Almagest, Ptolemy laid out his theory for an Earth-centric Universe, with the Moon, Sun, planets and stars in concentric crystal spheres that rotated around the planet. He was wrong about the Universe, of course, but his charts and tables were incredibly accurate, measuring the brightness and location of more than 1,000 stars.

A thousand years later, the Arabic astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi completed an even more detailed measurement of the sky using an astrolabe.

One of the most famous astronomers in history was the Danish Tycho Brahe. He was renowned for his ability to measure the position of stars, and built incredibly precise instruments for the time to do the job. He measured the positions of stars to within 15 to 35 arcseconds of accuracy. Just for comparison, a human hair, held 10 meters away is an arcsecond wide.

Also, I’m required to inform you that Brahe had a fake nose. He lost his in a duel, but had a brass replacement made.

In 1807, Friedrich Bessel was the first astronomer to measure the distance to a nearby star 61 Cygni. He used the technique of parallax, by measuring the angle to the star when the Earth was on one side of the Sun, and then measuring it again 6 months later when the Earth was on the other side.

With parallax technique, astronomers observe object at opposite ends of Earth’s orbit around the Sun to precisely measure its distance. Credit: Alexandra Angelich, NRAO/AUI/NSF.

Over the course of this period, this relatively closer star moves slightly back and forth against the more distant background of the galaxy.

And over the next two centuries, other astronomers further refined this technique, getting better and better at figuring out the distance and motions of stars.

But to really track the positions and motions of stars, we needed to go to space. In 1989, the European Space Agency launched their Hipparcos mission, named after the Greek astronomer we talked about earlier. Its job was to measure the position and motion of the nearby stars in the Milky Way. Over the course of its mission, Hipparcos accurately measured 118,000 stars, and provided rough calculations for another 2 million stars.

That was useful, and astronomers have relied on it ever since, but something better has arrived, and its name is Gaia.

Credit: ESA/ATG medialab; Background Credit: ESO/S. Brunier

Launched in December 2013, the European Space Agency’s Gaia in is in the process of mapping out a billion stars in the Milky Way. That’s billion, with a B, and accounts for about 1% of the stars in the galaxy. The spacecraft will track the motion of 150 million stars, telling us where everything is going over time. It will be a mind bending accomplishment. Hipparchus would be proud.

With the most precise measurements, taken year after year, the motions of the stars can indeed be calculated. Although they’re not enough to see with the unaided eye, over thousands and tens of thousands of years, the positions of the stars change dramatically in the sky.

The familiar stars in the Big Dipper, for example, look how they do today. But if you go forward or backward in time, the positions of the stars look very different, and eventually completely unrecognizable.

When a star is moving sideways across the sky, astronomers call this “proper motion”. The speed a star moves is typically about 0.1 arc second per year. This is almost imperceptible, but over the course of 2000 years, for example, a typical star would have moved across the sky by about half a degree, or the width of the Moon in the sky.

A 20 year animation showing the proper motion of Barnard’s Star. Credit: Steve Quirk, images in the Public Domain.

The star with the fastest proper motion that we know of is Barnard’s star, zipping through the sky at 10.25 arcseconds a year. In that same 2000 year period, it would have moved 5.5 degrees, or about 11 times the width of your hand. Very fast.

When a star is moving toward or away from us, astronomers call that radial velocity. They measure this by calculating the doppler shift. The light from stars moving towards us is shifted towards the blue side of the spectrum, while stars moving away from us are red-shifted.

Between the proper motion and redshift, you can get a precise calculation for the exact path a star is moving in the sky.

Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

We know, for example, that the dwarf star Hipparcos 85605 is moving rapidly towards us. It’s 16 light-years away right now, but in the next few hundred thousand years, it’s going to get as close as .13 light-years away, or about 8,200 times the distance from the Earth to the Sun. This won’t cause us any direct effect, but the gravitational interaction from the star could kick a bunch of comets out of the Oort cloud and send them down towards the inner Solar System.

The motions of the stars is fairly gentle, jostling through gravitational interactions as they orbit around the center of the Milky Way. But there are other, more catastrophic events that can make stars move much more quickly through space.

When a binary pair of stars gets too close to the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, one can be consumed by the black hole. The other now has the velocity, without the added mass of its companion. This gives it a high-velocity kick. About once every 100,000 years, a star is kicked right out of the Milky Way from the galactic center.

A rogue star being kicked out of a galaxy. Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

Another situation can happen where a smaller star is orbiting around a supermassive companion. Over time, the massive star bloats up as supergiant and then detonates as a supernova. Like a stone released from a sling, the smaller star is no longer held in place by gravity, and it hurtles out into space at incredible speeds.

Astronomers have detected these hypervelocity stars moving at 1.1 million kilometers per hour relative to the center of the Milky Way.

All of the methods of stellar motion that I talked about so far are natural. But can you imagine a future civilization that becomes so powerful it could move the stars themselves?

In 1987, the Russian astrophysicist Leonid Shkadov presented a technique that could move a star over vast lengths of time. By building a huge mirror and positioning it on one side of a star, the star itself could act like a thruster.

An example of a stellar engine using a mirror and a Dyson Swarm. Credit: Vedexent at English Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Photons from the star would reflect off the mirror, imparting momentum like a solar sail. The mirror itself would be massive enough that its gravity would attract the star, but the light pressure from the star would keep it from falling in. This would create a slow but steady pressure on the other side of the star, accelerating it in whatever direction the civilization wanted.

Over the course of a few billion years, a star could be relocated pretty much anywhere a civilization wanted within its host galaxy.

This would be a true Type III Civilization. A vast empire with such power and capability that they can rearrange the stars in their entire galaxy into a configuration that they find more useful. Maybe they arrange all the stars into a vast sphere, or some kind of geometric object, to minimize transit and communication times. Or maybe it makes more sense to push them all into a clean flat disk.

Amazingly, astronomers have actually gone looking for galaxies like this. In theory, a galaxy under control by a Type III Civilization should be obvious by the wavelength of light they give off. But so far, none have turned up. It’s all normal, natural galaxies as far as we can see in all directions.

For our short lifetimes, it appears as if the sky is frozen. The stars remain in their exact positions forever, but if you could speed up time, you’d see that everything is in motion, all the time, with stars moving back and forth, like airplanes across the sky. You just need to be patient to see it.

The Cepheus Constellation

Welcome back to Constellation Friday! Today, in honor of the late and great Tammy Plotner, we will be dealing with the King of Ethiopia himself, the Cepheus constellation!

In the 2nd century CE, Greek-Egyptian astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus (aka. Ptolemy) compiled a list of all the then-known 48 constellations. This treatise, known as the Almagest, would be used by medieval European and Islamic scholars for over a thousand years to come, effectively becoming astrological and astronomical canon until the early Modern Age.

One of these is the northern constellation of Cepheus, named after the mythological king of Ethiopia. Today, it is one of the 88 modern constellations recognized by the IAU, and is bordered by the constellations of Camelopardalis, Cassiopeia, Cygnus, Draco, Lacerta, and Ursa Minor.

Name and Meaning:

In Greek mythology, Cepheus represents the mythical king of Aethiopia – and husband to the vain queen Cassiopeia. This also makes him the father of the lovely Andromeda, and a member of the entire sky saga which involves jealous gods and mortal boasts. According to this myth, Zeus placed Cepheus in the sky after his tragic death, which resulted from a jealous lovers’ spat.

Cepheus as depicted in Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c. 1825. Credit: Library of Congress/Sidney Hall

It began when Cepheus’ wife – Cassiopeia – boasted that she was more beautiful than the Nereids (the sea nymphs), which angered the nymphs and Poseidon, god of the sea. Poseidon sent a sea monster, represented by the constellation Cetus, to ravage Cepheus’ land. To avoid catastrophe, Cepheus tried to sacrifice his daughter Andromeda to Cetus; but she was saved by the hero Perseus, who also slew the monster.

The two were to be married, but this created conflict since Andromeda had already been promised to Cepheus brother, Phineus. A fight ensued, and Perseus was forced to brandish the head of Medusa to defeat his enemies, which caused Cepheus and Cassiopeia (who did not look away in time) to turn to stone. Perhaps his part in the whole drama is why his crown only appears to be seen in the fainter stars when he’s upside down?

History of Observation:

As one of the 48 fabled constellations from Greek mythology, Cepheus was included by Ptolemy in his 2nd century tract, The Almagest. In 1922, it was included in the 88 modern constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU).

Notable Features:

Bordered by Cygnus, Lacerta and Cassiopeia, it contains only one bright star, but seven major stars and 43 which have Bayer/Flamsteed designations. It’s brightest star, Alpha Cephei, is a white class A star, which is located about 48 light years away. Its traditional name (Alderamin) is derived from the Arabic “al-dira al-yamin“, which means “the right arm”.

This Hubble image shows RS Puppis, a type of variable star known as a Cepheid variable. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI/AURA/H. Bond/STScI/Penn State University

Next is Beta Cephei, a triple star systems that is approximately 690 light years from Earth. The star’s traditional name, Alfirk, is derived from the Arabic “al-firqah” (“the flock”). The brightest component in this system, Alfirk A, is a blue giant star (B2IIIev), which indicates that it is a variable star. In fact, this star is a prototype for Beta Cephei variables – main sequence stars that show variations in brightness as a result of pulsations of their surfaces.

Then there’s Delta Cephei, which is located approximately 891 light years from the Solar System. This star also serves as a prototype for Cepheid variables, where pulsations on its surface are directly linked to changes in luminosity. The brighter component of the binary is classified as a yellow-white F-class supergiant, while its companion is believed to be a B-class star.

Gamma Cephei is another binary star in Cepheus, which is located approximately 45 light years away. The star’s traditional name is Alrai (Er Rai or Errai), which is derived from the Arabic ar-r?‘?, which means “the shepherd.” Gamma Cephei is an orange subgiant (K1III-IV) that can be seen by the naked eye, and its companion has about 0.409 solar masses and is thought to be an M4 class red dwarf.

Cepheus is also home to many notable Deep Sky Objects. For example, there’s NGC 6946, which is sometimes called the Fireworks Galaxy because of its supernovae rate and high volume of star formation. This  intermediate spiral galaxy is located approximately 22 million light years distant. The galaxy was discovered by William Herschel in September 1798, and nine supernovae have been observed in it over the last century.

The Fireworks Galaxy (NGC 6946). Credit: Simon Driver (University of St. Andrews)

Next up is the Wizard Nebula (NGC 7380), an open star cluster that was discovered by Caroline Herschel in 1787. The cluster is embedded in a nebula that is about 110 light years in size and roughly 7,000 light years from our Solar System. It is also a relatively young open cluster, as its stars are estimated to be less than 500 million years old.

Then there’s the Iris Nebula (NGC 7023), a reflection nebula with an apparent magnitude of 6.8 that is approximately 1,300 light years distant. The object is so-named because it is actually a star cluster embedded inside a nebula. The nebula is lit by the star SAO 19158 and it lies close to two relatively bright stars – T Cephei, which is a Mira type variable, and Beta Cephei.

Discovered by Sir William Herschel on October 18, 1794, Herschel made the correct assumption of, “A star of 7th magnitude. Affected with nebulosity which more than fills the field. It seems to extend to at least a degree all around: (fainter) stars such as 9th or 10th magnitude, of which there are many, are perfectly free from this appearance.”

So where did the confusion come in? It happened in 1931 when Per Collinder decided to list the stars around it as a star cluster Collinder 429. Then along came Mr. van den Berg, and the little nebula became known as van den Berg 139. Then the whole group became known as Caldwell 4! So what’s right and what isn’t?

The Wizard Nebula (NGC 738). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team

According to Brent Archinal, “I was surprised to find NGC 7023 listed in my catalog as a star cluster. I assumed immediately the Caldwell Catalog was in error, but further checking showed I was wrong! The Caldwell Catalog may be the only modern catalog to get the type correctly!”

Finding Cepheus:

Cepheus is a circumpolar constellation of the northern hemisphere and is easily seen at visible at latitudes between +90° and -10° and best seen during culmination during the month of November. For the unaided eye observer, start first with Cepheus’ brightest star – Alpha. It’s name is Alderamin and it’s going through stellar evolution – moving off the main sequence into a subgiant, and on its way to becoming a red giant as its hydrogen supply depletes.

What’s very cool is Alderamin is located near the precessional path traced across the celestial sphere by the Earth’s north pole. That means that periodically this star comes within 3° of being a pole star! Keeping that in mind, head off for Gamma Cephei. Guess what? Due to the precession of the equinoxes, Errai will become our northern pole star around 3000 AD and will make its closest approach around 4000 AD. (Don’t wait up, though… It will be late).

However, you can stay up late enough with a telescope or binoculars to have a closer look at Errai, because its an orange subgiant binary star that’s also about to go off the main sequence and its accompanied by a red dwarf star. What’s so special about that? Well, maybe because a planet has been discovered floating around there, too!

The location of the northern Cepheus constellation. Credit: IAU/Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg)

Now let’s have some fun with a Cepheid variable star that changes enough in about 5 days to make watching it fun! You’ll find Delta on the map as the figure 8 symbol and in the sky you’ll find it 891 light-years away. Delta Cephei is binary star system and the prototype of the Cepheid variable stars – the closest of its type to the Sun.

This star pulses every 5.36634 days, causing its stellar magnitude to vary from 3.6 to 4.3. But that’s not all! Its spectral type varies, too – going from F5 to G3. Try watching it over a period of several nights. Its rise to brightness is much faster than its decline! With a telescope, you will be able to see a companion star separated from Delta Cephei by 41 arc seconds.

Are you ready to examine two red supergiant stars? If you live in a dark sky area, you can see these unaided, but they are much nicer in binoculars. The first is Mu Cephei – aka. Herschel’s Garnet Star. In his 1783 notes, Sir William Herschel wrote: “a very fine deep garnet colour, such as the periodical star omicron ceti” and the name stuck when Giuseppe Piazzi included the description in his catalog.

Now compare it to VV Cephi, right smack in the middle of the map. VV is absolutely a supergiant star, and it is of the largest stars known. In fact, VV Cephei is believed to be the third largest star in the entire Milky Way Galaxy! VV Cephei is 275,000-575,000 times more luminous than the Sun and is approximately 1,600–1,900 times the Sun’s diameter.

Artist’s impression of VV Cep A, created using Celestia, with Mu Cephei (Garnet Star) in the background. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Rackshea

If placed in our solar system, the binary system would extend past the orbit of Jupiter and approach that of Saturn. Some 3,000 light years away from Earth, matter continuously flows off this bad boy and into its blue companion. Stellar wind flows off the system at a velocity of approximately 25 kilometers per second. And some body’s Roche lobe gets filled!

For some rich field telescope and binocular fun from a dark sky site, try your luck with IC1396. This 3 degree field of nebulosity can even be seen unaided at times! Inside you’ll find an open star cluster (hence the designation) and photographically the whole area is criss-crossed with dark nebulae.

For a telescope challenge, see if you can locate both Spiral galaxy NGC 6946 – aka. the Fireworks Nebula – and galactic cluster NGC 6939 about 2 degrees southwest of Eta Cepheus. About 40 arc minutes northwest of NGC 6946 – is about 8th magnitude, well compressed and contains about 80 stars.

More? Then try NGC 7023 – The Iris Nebula. This faint nebula can be achieved in dark skies with a 114-150mm telescope, but larger aperture will help reveal more subtle details since it has a lower surface brightness. Take the time at lower power to reveal the dark dust “lacuna” around it reported so many years ago, and to enjoy the true beauty of this Caldwell gem.

The Iris Nebula (NGC 7023). Credit: Hewholooks

Still more? Then head off with your telescope for IC1470 – but take your CCD camera. IC1470 is a compact H II region excited by a single O7 star associated with an extensive molecular cloud in the Perseus arm!

Yes, Cepheus has plenty of viewing opportunities for the amateur astronomer. And for thousands of years, it has proven to be a source of fascination for scholars and astronomers.

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

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

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

Sources: