Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Cetus

As first appeared in the October 2010 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

There is a region of the Night Sky that is dominated by aquatic creatures. Alternately, if we consider empty space as its own kind of ocean, there are regions where the stars of the Aquatic Constellations appear to undulate at geologic time scales, making the current arrangement of stars effectively motionless to our eyes and those of many generations to come.

Within this Water Region are the Constellations (as listed at wikipedia) Aquarius, Capricornus, Cetus, Delphinus, Eridanus, Hydra, Pisces, and Piscis Austrinus. If we think in terms of seasonal change, this does seem like an oddity of planning. Who would place the Aquatic Constellations in the Night Sky during the late fall and winter, when the temperature in some parts of the Northern Hemisphere (such as at Darling Hill Observatory) might as well be that of interstellar space? Where are the polar bear and penguin Constellations?

Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

The answer to this has less to do with the apparent location of these Constellations in our Night Sky and more to do with the position of the Sun during our daytime sky roughly six months later (the Sun IN Pisces, for instance). When the Sun is in this region of the sky from our terrestrial perspective, the Northern Hemisphere is well into Spring, the time of the rainy season in our and ancient cultures. The image above shows the position of the Sun at noon on April 1, 2011. No joke. If our blue sky were to disappear, we’d have a few seconds to enjoy the daytime Constellations (before we passed out, were cooked by radiation, or froze to death, depending on where the atmosphere went. Fun factoid – Mercury, with no atmosphere to speak of, provides 24-hour Constellation observing!).

This brings us to Cetus, formerly known as a sea monster (indirect evidence for the lack of submarines in ancient Greece?), now increasingly considered to be a whale (perhaps equally terrifying to a small boat far from land in antiquity). Like some misidentified sea monster seen from a dry beach by a hydrophobic observer, Cetus provides a small amount of clear identification and several subtle treats for Earth-locked amateur astronomers that leave quite a bit to the imagination.

Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

One of the patient treats in Cetus is the variable multiple star Mira (Omicron Ceti). As our Observatory Director Ray Dague pointed out at our last Public Viewing session, this star takes its own 331.65 day journey from a 10.1 magnitude star to a 2.0 magnitude star. That is a phenomenal change! It is current at 6.5 magnitude and found in the neck of the beast (above).

M77 image by Hunter Wilson.

As for Messier Objects, those objects one can definitely say they saw on first pass with even moderately-sized binoculars, Cetus is accompanied by only M77, a distant (47 million light years away) barred spiral galaxy (at left, photo by Hunter Wilson). While one distant galaxy is anchored in this part of the sky, this small region is host to tens-of-thousands of invisible objects swimming around our Sun. Cetus is a border Constellation to the Zodiac, those 12 Constellations that mark the path of the Sun and planets from our observing post on Earth. By the way the borders are drawn, Cetus does play host very occasionally to planets and, notably, the objects of the Asteroid Belt. Cetus had the distinction of being the host to 4 Vesta (shown below, photo from the Hubble Space Telescope), the 2nd largest object identified in the Asteroid Belt, during its discovery on 29 March 1807 by Heinrich Wilhelm Olbers.

4 Vesta (Images taken 2007 May 14 and 16). From hubblesite.org.

And then there’s stuff we can only imagine seeing without the most powerful scopes in the known universe. Cetus is the host to JKCS 041 (shown below, also in the neck as marked in the opening image. Must be a hungry monster), the current holder of the title as most distant galaxy cluster yet discovered, residing at a boggling distance of 10.2 billion light years from us. Wikipedia hosts a short little movie about this distant cluster HERE.

JKCS 041 (22 Oct 2009) from NASA/CXC/INAF/S.Andreon et al Optical: DSS; ESO/VLT.

Clear skies, Damian

P.S. It has taken all my concentration to not refer to Cetus as a Whale of a Constellation.

Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Triangulum

As first appeared in the October 2010 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

I remember my first foray into Constellation memorization, still the first thing I recommend for anyone beginning in amateur astronomy (primarily for using these imagined creations to memorize the locations of far dimmer objects when you graduate up to binoculars or small scopes, but also simply to develop a sense of, well, the space between these creations as you jump between objects).

Orion, yeah yeah… Scorpius, O.K. obvious… The body of Sagittarius looks like a teapot, that’s not bad… Cassiopeia is the great big “W” Jonathan Winters discovered in “It’s a Mad … Mad World“… The “Dippers” are dippers… Canis Minor is composed of two stars, and they happen to be in a straight line! At least it contains a bit of animal lore and the great Procyon. That should be easy to find.

Ah! Triangulum. A famed triangle of stars. Named after the famed shape called “The Triangle,” and believed to be the last Constellation drawn out by Ptolemy as one of the original 48 Constellations of Antiquity. It bet it was supposed to be “The Great Northern Spearhead,” but Ptolemy must have been a pacifist. It is believed he committed it to papyrus at 4:50 p.m. on a Friday before the scribes began copying the first edition Monday morning.

I have to admit, this Constellation seemed like an odd member of the original series, if for no other reason than the seemingly minimal amount of work (or so I thought) that must have gone into its creation. As I hope to convey to you in the next few paragraphs, this little Constellation has stood the test of time for a few good reasons.

To begin, the heart of Triangulum dates back all the way to the Babylonians (which means it likely also dates back further into pre-recorded history) who, with the inclusion of what we now know as γ-Andromeda, called this Constellation MUL.APIN, or “The Plough.” With this simple extension added in red in the image above, I hope the resemblance is now obvious. To my technologically-biased mind, the nondescript triangle of the modern sky instantaneously becomes the (seemingly) everlasting testament to the power of agriculture and the shining reminder to all of the simple tool responsible for the creation of a commodity we know today as “surplus.” I don’t think that’s going too overboard in the description.

You are here.

We have these “organic farming” discussions where people ask you “Where do you think your food comes from?” It has been quite a recent phenomenon in the long history of this little sphere Carl Sagan referred to as a “Pale Blue Dot” (that’s you at right) that the members of a society have been relieved of the strain of producing for themselves by technology that improves efficiency and, more importantly, vastly increases quantity. If I take the comparison to the extreme, the Constellations that represented tools or deities have been replaced in many societies by the gigantic billboards that celebrate the financial well-being of companies continuing their crusade to relieve you of your currency, an economic reality impossible in a society where everyone’s working entirely to maintain a base subsistence level. The world remains in transition towards a time when all are at the same technological level as the First World countries (and it is only a matter of time), meaning something as simple to many of you reading this as an animal-driven plough remains a vital key to survival in other parts of the world.

I vote we re-designate the “Summer Triangle” as the “Summer Plough!”

While it may have been a signal for a Late-Summer party at the very beginning of some harvest, the Babylonians used the presence of their Triangulum to mark the “Way of Enlil,” the apparent path of the Sun after the Summer Solstice. In a society that used the Heavens as their Calendar, this simple Constellation took on a wholly more significant meaning.

Thanks to wikipedia, I know that a more recent attribution (to only the Triangle, not the Plough) of this Constellation is to the goddess Ceres, who successfully convinced the god Jupiter to add the island of Sicily (at left, the football that the boot of Italy appears to be kicking towards the U.S.) to the Night Sky (perhaps a preferred way to leave your mark in history, esp. given the alternative taken by Atlantis).

Sicily, featuring an active Mount Etna (Image by Jacques Descloitres, NASA MODIS Land Rapid Response Team).

Given this most interesting history, is there anything to actually do with a pair of eyes or an eyepiece in this part of the sky? I’m pleased to report that this part of the sky is actually quite busy (the Star Map at this beginning of this article is about as busy as one can get without looking at Sagittarius), with Triangulum serving as a useful anchor for finding a number of objects in our Eastern sky this month.

M33, the Triangulum Galaxy. Photo by Hunter Wilson.

As it happens, one of the precious few naked eye galaxies (provided ideal viewing conditions) in the Northern Sky lies just to the South (to the right as you’re looking at it) of α-Tri. M33 (at right), appropriately named the “Triangulum Galaxy,” is a member of the Local Group of galaxies (the most famous member being our Milky Way, the second most famous being the Andromeda Galaxy) and, at 2.9 million light years away, lies (by some estimates) 700,000 light years farther from us than the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) AND, according to measurements using the Very Long Baseline Array, is moving at 190 km/second relative to us and towards M31 (the demolition derby will not be pleasant for M33, given it contains only 4% of the stars of M31 (how many mopeds are there in a semi-rig?). It is still under debate as to whether or not M33 is a companion galaxy to the more massive M31 (they do share proximity), but it certainly stands on its own as a spectacle in a good telescope on a dark night. This first recorded observation (it all comes down to paper) is attributed to Giovanni Battista Hodierna around 1650 (above at left), the most famous recorded observation (it all comes down to publication) can be given to Charles Messier (above at right) on August 25-26, 1764 (now that’s bookkeeping!).

Giovanni Battista Hodierna (left) and Charles Messier (right).

All of the other objects in the boundaries of Triangulum are dim (10>th order or dimmer), making your time spent with moderate optics in this area short compared to the time you’d likely spend just on M31 alone. As a good practice for the next Messier Marathon, you can use M33 (*1) and M31 (*2) to mark the Southern side of a rectangle composed of M33, M31, M34 (*3) and M76 (*4, these last two are right on the Perseus-Andromeda border). As M33 will give you M32 and M101, that’s a quick-six to check off as you plough your way through the list of 110.

Comet Hartley 2 and NGC 457 (the E.T. Cluster). Photo by SAS member Stu Forster.

AND, as long as were in this neck of the woods (and the tree line in this part of the sky at Darling Hill is now just becoming more bearable to the impatient observer with the falling of leaves), we can use the Babylonian form of Triangulum to quickly point our way to M76, then slowly walk the Telrad to the North (left) until we reach the Southern Double of the famed Double-Double, which then puts into view both members of the Perseus Double-Double Cluster (NGC 884 and NGC 869) and Comet Hartley 2, which is working its way through our neighborhood. Our own Stu Forster managed to capture Hartley (green glow at left) as it passed through the local neighborhood of NGC 457, more commonly known as the Owl or E.T. Cluster (yes. tha E.T., the two bright eyes work for both).

Clear skies, Damian

Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Pegasus

As first appeared in the September 2010 edition of the Syracuse Astronomical Society newsletter The Astronomical Chronicle (PDF).

Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

The Constellation this month is one light on interesting binocular and telescope objects but heavy in mythology and Naked Eye observing. To the Babylonians, the stars in this region also (or first) took on the shape of a horse known as MUL.ANSHE.KUR.RA. To the Greeks, sometimes a horse is not (just) a horse (of course, of course). The Greek mythology surrounding the winged horse Pegasus is, to say the least, involved and undecided. There are several pages discussing the mythology of Pegasus, which I refer you to in the interest of local brevity.

The torso of Pegasus is composed of a “Great Square” of stars that is very easy to see and is very often pointed out to visitors at this time of year at Darling Hill. This asterism (simply any grouping of stars that are not officially constellations) lies to the right (or south) of the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), one of the great views in the Autumn skies. As the scope is pointed in this direction anyway for a good block of time during Public Viewing sessions, the walk through some of the nearby Constellations (Cassiopeia, Perseus, Andromeda, Pegasus, Cepheus) reads like a Cliff Notes version of both Clash Of The Titans movies (unless John McMahon is running the presentation, in which case you’re guaranteed a much better show). In the modern definition of the Constellations, the south-most (or upper left corner) star belongs instead to the Constellation Andromeda (but anyone staring at this part of the sky would be hard pressed to be struck more by the “Great Triangle” of Pegasus than the “Great Square” of Pegasus).

There are only two significant (and visually accessible) objects within Pegasus (the Constellation, that is) for the binocular and telescope viewer at Darling Hill. The first of these is the appropriately named Pegasus Cluster (M15), an ancient globular cluster clocked at 13.2 billion years of age. This cluster appears as a smaller version of M13 in Hercules, as captured by our own Stu Forster in the September 2008 Member Gallery and shown below. The second object is a far more difficult find, the very unique spiral galaxy NGC 7742 (below). The presence of a prominent ring in this galaxy (or, more specifically, the absence of pronounced spiraling from the center of the galaxy out to the edges) is a point of unexplained inquiry in modern astrophysics.

M15, photo taken by SAS member Stu Forster.
NGC 7742, image from the Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI/NASA/ESA).

The most curious content on the wikipedia page for Pegasus involves the nontrivial amount of discussion about the reinterpretation of its connectivity by one H. A. Rey in, specifically, his book The Stars — A New Way To See Them. Rey’s goal in this book is to redefine connectivity of some of the Constellations to make them a bit easier to see as the mythical beasts they are known for. For Pegasus (see below), Rey has eliminated any mention of Sirrah (or Alpheratz, as it’s known within Andromeda), using the Great Square as a Great Triangle that marks the above-the-shoulder wings over the trapezoid torso (with the rest of the limbs along the southern edge of the Constellation). Upon inspection, his reinterpretation looked more to me like one of the drawings of The Man In The Yellow Hat who, along with Curious George, is perhaps the more famous of the illustrated characters created by H. A. Rey.

A new view of an old constellation, or The Batman In The Yellow Hat.

I’ll admit I’m mildly ambivalent about the redefinition of Constellation connectivity. On the one hand, the Constellations are one of the oldest memes in human history among all societies (extant or extinct) and, to that end, connectivity has meaning as a way of marking out specific arrangements that have largely stood the test of time. The consistency of connectivity also provides a way to reduce the memorization fatigue that comes from having to see groups of stars in slightly different ways (clearly, one arrangement is easier to know and explain than several). This is of further significance when one uses Constellations as a specific guide to locating Messier (or other) objects. If I tell you that “M15 is on an almost straight line about 1/2 the distance of the two stars that make up the snout,” you really have to trust that we’re seeing the same horse!

On the other hand, there are many amateur astronomers who use Constellations largely as tools for finding smaller objects (with or without a knowledge of their history) and, as we are a species that excels at pattern recognition (how many flying faces and hippopotami can you see on a partly cloudy afternoon?), anything that makes life easier for you the observer (especially on cold nights when observing time is at a premium) should be added to your observing arsenal. H. A. Rey’s interpretation of Pegasus connectivity might cloud just how pronounced the Great Square is (so you have to then present this Constellation with an addendum!), but it certainly does look more like a complete flying horse than the common artistic rendering of only the front half (clearly the side you’d want to have over you anyway given both choices).

Any way you look at it, it’s still safe to assume that the winged horse must have been the most efficient way to travel in the ancient world. It certainly speeds up a good plot.

Clear skies, Damian