Messier 21 (M21) – The NGC 6531 Open Star Cluster

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the Messier 21 open star cluster. Enjoy!

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

One of these objects is Messier 21 (aka. NGC 6531), an open star cluster located in the Sagittarius constellation. A relatively young cluster that is tightly packed, this object is not visible to the naked eye. Hence why it was not discovered until 1764 by Charles Messier himself. It is now one of the over 100 Deep Sky Objects listed in the Messier Catalog.

Description:

At a distance of 4,250 light years from Earth, this group of 57 various magnitude stars all started life together about 4.6 million years ago as part of the Sagittarius OB1 stellar association. What makes this fairly loose collection of stars rather prized is its youth as a cluster, and the variation of age in its stellar members. Main sequence stars are easy enough to distinguish in a group, but low mass stars are a different story when it comes to separating them from older cluster members.

Messier 21 (NGC 6531). Atlas Image mosaic obtained as part of the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS), a joint project of the University of Massachusetts and the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center/California Institute of Technology, funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Science Foundation.
Atlas mosaic image of Messier 21 (NGC 6531) obtained as part of the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS). Credit: 2MASS/UofM/IPAC/Catech/NASA/NSF

As Byeong Park of the Korean Astronomy Observatory said in a 2001 study of the object:

“In the case of a young open cluster, low-mass stars are still in the contraction phase and their positions in the photometric diagrams are usually crowded with foreground red stars and reddened background stars. The young open cluster NGC 6531 (M21) is located in the Galactic disk near the Sagittarius star forming region. The cluster is near to the nebula NGC 6514 (the Trifid nebula), but it is known that it is not associated with any nebulosity and the interstellar reddening is low and homogeneous. Although the cluster is relatively near, and has many early B-type stars, it has not been studied in detail.”

But study it in detail they did, finding 56 main sequence members, 7 pre-main sequence stars and 6 pre-main sequence candidates. But why did this cluster… you know, cluster in the way it did? As Didier Raboud, an astronomer from the Geneva Observatory, explained in his 1998 study “Mass segregation in very young open clusters“:

“The study of the very young open cluster NGC 6231 clearly shows the presence of a mass segregation for the most massive stars. These observations, combined with those concerning other young objects and very recent numerical simulations, strongly support the hypothesis of an initial origin for the mass segregation of the most massive stars. These results led to the conclusion that massive stars form near the center of clusters. They are strong constraints for scenarii of star and stellar cluster formation.” say Raboud, “In the context of massive star formation in the center of clusters, it is worth noting that we observe numerous examples of multiple systems of O-stars in the center of very young OCs. In the case of NGC 6231, 8 stars among the 10 brightest are spectroscopic binaries with periods shorter than 6 days.”

Credit: earthsky.org
Achernar, the flattest star known, is classified as be star. Credit: earthsky.org

But are there any other surprises hidden inside? You bet! Try Be-stars, a class of rapidly rotating stars that end up becoming flattened at the poles. As Virginia McSwain of Yale University’s Department of Astronomy wrote in a 2005 study, “The Evolutionary Status of Be Stars: Results from a Photometric Study of Southern Open Clusters“:

“Be stars are a class of rapidly rotating B stars with circumstellar disks that cause Balmer and other line emission. There are three possible reasons for the rapid rotation of Be stars: they may have been born as rapid rotators, spun up by binary mass transfer, or spun up during the main-sequence (MS) evolution of B stars. To test the various formation scenarios, we have conducted a photometric survey of 55 open clusters in the southern sky. We use our results to examine the age and evolutionary dependence of the Be phenomenon. We find an overall increase in the fraction of Be stars with age until 100 Myr, and Be stars are most common among the brightest, most massive B-type stars above the zero-age main sequence (ZAMS). We show that a spin-up phase at the terminal-age main sequence (TAMS) cannot produce the observed distribution of Be stars, but up to 73% of the Be stars detected may have been spun-up by binary mass transfer. Most of the remaining Be stars were likely rapid rotators at birth. Previous studies have suggested that low metallicity and high cluster density may also favor Be star formation.”

History of Observation:

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

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

Messier 21. Credit: Wikisky
Close up of the Messier 21 star cluster. Credit: Wikisky

While Messier did separate the two star clusters, he assumed the nebulosity of M20 was also involved with M21. In this circumstance, we cannot fault him. After all, his job was to locate comets, and the purpose of his catalog was to identify those objects that were not. In later years, Messier 21 would be revisited again by Admiral Smyth, who would describe it as follows:

“A coarse cluster of telescopic stars, in a rich gathering galaxy region, near the upper part of the Archer’s bow; and about the middle is the conspicuous pair above registered, – A being 9, yellowish, and B 10, ash coloured. This was discovered by Messier in 1764, who seems to have included some bright outliers in his description, and what he mentions as nebulosity, must have been the grouping of the minute stars in view. Though this was in the power of the meridian instruments, its mean apparent place was obtained by differentiation from Mu Sagittarii, the bright star about 2 deg 1/4 to the north-east of it.”

Locating Messier 21:

Once you have become familiar with the Sagittarius region, finding Messier 21 is easy. It’s located just two and a half degrees northwest of Messier 8 – the “Lagoon Nebula” – and about a half a degree northeast of Messier 20 – the “Trifid Nebula“. If you are just beginning to astronomy, try starting at the teapot’s tip star (Lambda) “Al Nasl”, and starhopping in the finderscope northwest to the Lagoon.

Credit IAU/Sky & Telescope magazineRoger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg
The location of M21 in the Sagittarius constellation. Credit: IAU/Sky & Telescope magazineRoger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg

While the nebulosity might not show in your finder, optical double 7 Sagittari, will. From there you will spot a bright cluster of stars two degrees due north. These are the stars embedded withing the Trifid Nebula, and the small, compressed area of stars to its northeast is the open star cluster M21. It will show well in binoculars under most sky conditions as a small, fairly bright concentration and resolve well for all telescope sizes.

And here are the quick facts, for your convenience:

Object Name: Messier 21
Alternative Designations: M21, NGC 6531
Object Type: Open Star Cluster
Constellation: Sagittarius
Right Ascension: 18 : 04.6 (h:m)
Declination: -22 : 30 (deg:m)
Distance: 4.25 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 6.5 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 13.0 (arc min)

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

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

Sources:

Messier 20 (M20) – The Trifid Nebula

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

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

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

Description:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History of Observation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Locating Messier 20:

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck and enjoy your observations!

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

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

Astrophoto: Spectacular View of the Triffid Nebula in Narrowband

What a gorgeous deep sky astrophoto! M20, also known as the Trifid Nebula is located in Sagittarius, and its name means ‘divided into three lobes.’ The ‘lobes’ are clearly visible in this very pretty palette of colors by astrophotographer Ian Sharp.

“I’ve been agonising about this one because it was a real struggle to find a palette that worked because the Hα data was so strong,” Ian told Universe Today via email. He said the regular Hubble palette caused a very green result, so instead he used this mix of channels:

R: (Hα x 0.50) + (SII x 0.50)
G: (OIII x 0.85) + (Hα x 0.15)
B: OIII

This was taken remotely from Siding Spring Observatory in Australia over the past few weeks, with 38 hours of exposure.

Hα: 27 x 1800s
OIII: 28 x 1800s
SII: 21 x 1800s

Here’s the link to the photo on Ian’s website.

The details of the equipment used to take this are below:

Optical Tube Assembly RCOS 12.5” F/9 (2857mm focal length) Carbon-Fibre Tube w/TCC2, PIR and FFC
Equatorial Mount Bisque Paramount ME
Imaging Camera Apogee F16M-D9 (KAF-16803) with 7 slot filter wheel
Imaging Camera Filters Astrodon Series II L,R,G,B, Ha (5nm), OIII (3nm) and SII (3nm)
Guide Camera MMOAG with SBIG ST-402ME
The system delivers a 44×44 arcmin FoV operating at .65 arcsec/pixel

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.

Deep and Wide: Stunning Amateur View of the Lagoon and Trifid Nebulae

Here’s a beautiful deep look at a wide-field view of the Lagoon Nebula (M8, NGC 6523) and the Trifid Nebula (M20, NGC 6514) along with star cluster M21 and star forming region NGC6559. Amateur astronomer and astrophotographer Terry Hancock from Michigan says this is one of his favorite fields of view to observe. However, right now it’s very low in the southern sky and therefore limited to a couple of hours each night. Just wait until next month, and this region will be higher in the sky for better northern hemisphere viewing.

Terry captured this view in H-Alpha plus RGB over 4 nights.

I’ll let him explain the view:

“Both of these objects are intensely rich with HII regions. Right of center is The Lagoon Nebula, a giant emission Nebula and HII region, bottom center can be seen the star forming region NGC6559 , these are estimated at 4,000 to 6,000 light years from us in the constellation Sagittarius.

Upper left in this image can be seen M20 or NGC 6514 known as The Trifid Nebula also in the constellation of Sagittarius and lies at a distance of approximately 5000 light years from us.

This object is a combination of emission nebula (the red area), reflection nebula (the blue area) and dark nebula (the dark jagged lines within the Trifid Nebula). Below left of M8 is the Star cluster M21.”

Just a really stunning “deep and wide” view of this region of the sky. See more of Terry’s work at his website, The Down Under Observatory (he’s originally from Australia) or on Flickr or Google +.

He’s also got a great video of some of his work:

Want to get your astrophoto featured on Universe Today? Join our Flickr group or send us your images by email (this means you’re giving us permission to post them). Please explain what’s in the picture, when you took it, the equipment you used, etc.