Some Light Science Reading. The Constellations: Canes Venatici

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

Constellation Map generated with Starry Night Pro 6.

It often seems to me that the night is much more alive and richly colored than the day.
Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo, 1888

If the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image has taught us nothing else, it is that every piece of the sky, regardless of how diminutive it may be in the two-dimensional view of the universe through our eyes, holds a wealth of astronomical treasures.  We begin the 2010 Constellation presentations with one such small, but by no means insignificant, piece of the sky.  Canes Venatici ("Now that's Italian(-sounding)!") is a young constellation, one of the many additions formalized by Johannes Hevelius in the 17th century and the result of some rather troublesome bookkeeping over the course of written history.  As the story goes, several of the stars within the modern borders of Canes Venatici were originally part of Bootes' staff (or club.  Some herdsmen take the protection aspect of their job very seriously).  A poor translation of Ptolemy's Almagest from Greek to Arabic to Latin resulted in the "hook" of the staff being turned into "dogs" (accordingly to the translation history provided at wikipedia, the translation went from "the spearshaft having a hook" in Arabic to "spearshaft having dogs" in Latin.  Perhaps the Arabic-to-Latin translation occurred on a late Friday afternoon before a much-anticipated Public Viewing session?). Befitting a new constellation of hunting dogs now accompanying Bootes in his nighttime watch, Hevelius, er, ran with it and gave the mythological canines Chara and Asterion a small but astronomically busy place next to their master.

The two dogs Chara (represented by the star "Chara") and Asterion (represented by "Cor Caroli") are identified by only their two brightest stars, which are themselves joined by a short leash in the modern line representation.  The many dimmer stars in this constellation that jump out even with low-power binoculars add multiple "spots" to the imagined bodies of these two dogs.  As they rush ahead of their master Bootes, they point straight towards the hindmost of Ursa Major (or appear to be running past the Big Dipper).  If celestial real estate is any measure of actual size in the ancient illustrations, the giant Ursa Major is right in aligning his gaze away from the two diminutive playful pups.  I'm sure there's some imagined connection between Canes Venatici and its final bordering constellation Coma Berenices, but I was once told that the explanation can get a little hairy (if you did not recognize that as a poor pun, do read the wikipedia entry for Coma Berenices, which may find its way to a feature in upcoming newsletters).

If we let lying dogs rest for a moment, we find Chara and Asterion in possession of five Messier Objects, including a phenomenal telescope sight that is otherwise most often found by chasing Ursa Major's tail.  The distance between M3 and M106 marks the total width of this constellation.  M3 (below) is an 8 billion-year-old globular cluster composed of 500,000 stars that rests roughly 1/3 the width of our galaxy from us (33,900 light years).

M3, from Robert J. Vanderbei.

M106 (below, from NASA/CXC/University of Maryland) is one of those distant (well, 25 million light years) galaxies that NASA astronomers have a field day with as they overlay various wavelengths to make visually stunning images.  The strong X-ray lines in its spectrum indicate that a supermassive black hole resides in this galaxy that is in the process of devouring large swaths of stellar and gaseous matter.

M106, from NASA/CXC/University of Maryland.

M94 (below), also known as the Cat's Eye Galaxy, is a remarkable structure, as it contains two distinct spiral regions in one galaxy (providing the bright central pupil and the darker edges of the eye).  Speaking of two significant features in one, its discovery is attributed to Pierre Mechain and its cataloging by Charles Messier, occurring just two days later (pairs come in three's?).  M94 is itself the most prominent member of the so-called M94 Group of Galaxies, a closely associated group of (up-to 24) galaxies within the much larger Virgo Supercluster.  Fourteen of these galaxies lie between 9.0 (M94) and 14.2 magnitude, making the search possible with available gear but only under most ideal viewing conditions.

M94, from Spitzer, GALEX and R. Jay GaBany.

The Sunflower Galaxy (M63, below) was one of the first galaxies to have a distinctive spiral quality associated with it (this by Lord Rosse in the mid-19th century).  The short and tightly spiraled arms pack considerable spectral density into a seemingly small space, providing the stem-free sunflower view that, as it contains tens of thousands of suns, might better be called The Galaxyflower.  M63 is a member of the M51 Group, another cluster of galaxies within the Virgo Supercluster that feature, as their crown jewel…

M63, from NASA and WikiSky.

The Whirlpool Galaxy (M51, below) is, perhaps, the third best view of any galaxy to be found at Darling Hill (the second-best being the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) and the first being, you guessed it, our own Milky Way).  We view the Pinwheel Galaxy looking straight down the rotation axis of the pinwheel, providing us with what can be a very clear view of the spiral structure of the galaxy through our scopes (and providing those with big scopes a very clear view of this structure).  I suspect not a single member with a non-GOTO scope has ever said "It's over in Canes Venatici."  Instead, I suspect the standard manner of location involves some instruction stating "Look at the last star in the handle of the Big Dipper and go at a right angle about half the distance of the last two stars in the handle."  If you can see the famous pair Alcor and Mizar in the Big Dipper, you're almost at M51 in a pair of binoculars.  The bright bulge at the end of one spiral arm is a true companion galaxy.  Computer models indicate that the distortions of the M51 arm at this companion position are a result of the companion galaxy passing through the plane of the M51 some 550 million years ago, as if M51 were in the process of throwing its companion out into the void to be retrieved by our two dogs.

M51, from NASA and ESA.

Lord Rosse, who also identified the spiral structure in M63, observed and sketched the clear spiral structure of M51 in 1845 (shown below).  The sketch he made reminds me of the center swirl within Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night" (shown below).  And speaking of fine art, the Hubble image of M51 (provided as a massive download here) is one of those views that might well make the final cut in the first intergalactic exhibition.

The proverbial "Cat's Meow" of nighttime viewing from a small pair of stars that mark a small pair of dogs that were spared from the celestial kennel thanks to a mistranslated description of a cudgel.

Clear skies, Damian

Syracuse Astronomical Society President's Message For October, 2008

A repost of the original at the Syracuse Astronomical Society website.

Greetings fellow astrophiles! Beginning this October newsletter with a little bit of business…

SAS Newsletter Version 2.0

NOTE: This section is in reference to the SAS October newsletter. If you've not read it yet, download it HERE.

This is not only the second of the new newsletters, it represents a bit of a leap in technology as well. Part of the busy work of putting the September newsletter together involved generating hyperlinks for all of the interesting things mentioned in all of the articles so that you could simply click on a word you wanted more info about and BLAMO! you're off to either the main article or, as you may have noticed from my previous website messages, right to the wikipedia page for everything anyone cared to provide. Well, it turns out that Word for Mac (OSX) will easily print/save PDF files, but it will NOT preserve the hyperlinks. While it may have been just as easy to buy a Windows computer (chuckle) and a copy of Microsoft Office (double), I'm pleased to report that Pages for OSX does a nice job of formatting AND PDF's the hyperlinks correctly. If you see a word or phrase that appears in BLUE like this, you can click and, hopefully, your default web browser will open the webpage associated with the link.

As you can guess, the printed version of this PDF does not ring the butler with the Encyclopedia Britannica when you touch the linked text.

In An Expanding Universe, Our World Gets A Little Smaller

This October newsletter includes a review provided by Robert Godfrey, better known to NEAF attendees and many solar astronomy enthusiasts as "Barlow Bob." The Great Barlow'ed One (if I may be so bold) is a member of the Rockland Astronomy Club, has been at the center of the NEAF (Northeast Astronomy Forum. Just ask Mike Brady and Ray Dague how much of their money never made it back to CNY) Solar Star Parties, and has been cited as responsible for more amateur astronomer's interest in solar observing than anyone else I've seen online. We began a series of exchanges nearly a year ago and I was honored to find his kind remarks about our September newsletter in my email last month.

Barlow Bob

In searching out other astronomy club newsletters during the formulation of the new SAS newsletter, I noticed that "Barlow Bob" appeared often. Among his many other beneficial astronomical activities, Bob makes his own writings of product reviews, history, observing, and events (including the NEAF Solar Star Party) freely available for astronomy club use. I'm pleased that the SAS newsletter is yet another periodical to benefit from Bob's writings.

Still More Space Science At The MOST

The good Prof. Peter Plumley, exhibits projects manager for the MOST, has provided the dates for the two 2008 Space Science Speaker Series lectures in the Bristol IMAX Theater at the MOST (2009 dates coming). The first of these comes on Thursday the 30th, the far end of the tail that has already been comet October.

MOST lecture

This image shows how much the ground moved over the course of 1 day near Juneau, Alaska. The gray areas are water and the colored areas are on land. Each color cycle shows ground deformation 3 cm toward the overflying satellite. Areas with many color cycles show glaciers that are moving about 50 cm (20 inches) per day.

The first lecture is from Prof. Matthew Pritchard of Cornell, who will be talking about his research, using satellites to look at Earth to provide bird's eye (at various regions of the electromagnetic spectrum) views of geological changes on the planet.

And, with those updates, some astronomy news…

"The Ring's Mostly Empty – It Goes In A Circle – And – Oh My God! It's Full Of Really Old Rocks!"

If you read Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, you know his original vision had Saturn as the central planet in the story of the monolith (it is reported that Stanley Kubrick could not make a realistic-looking ring system for Saturn and opted to use the simpler Jupiter. Clarke then wrote the sequels based on these, er, new coordinates). I wish not to ruin plot lines, but Clarke attributes Saturn's ring material to the "engineering" of Japetus (Iapetus in other texts. Consonantal I = J in Latin) 3 millions years prior.

Saturn Rings

Nothing new to see here, but still plenty to see. From NASA.

Previous estimates put the age of the ring system at only 100 millions years (a surprise to me!). The relative "youth" of the rings had been proposed because, well, they look too dang good. To have the rings be as "bright and pristine" as they appear now in the presence of a Solar System full of colliding meteors and cosmic debris, the argument was that the rings had to be recent, meaning we were simply lucky to be here to see such an amazing spectacle.


The central seam of the moon Japetus. From NASA.

New simulations of the ring system, combined with observations from the Cassini mission, now predict that the constant bombardment of the rings by debris might break up the icy matter that constitutes the rings, but there is much more, and more massive, material in the ring system that can re-clump after being broken apart. The rings are now believed to possibly be nearly as old as the Solar System itself.

This does not make Iapetus any less interesting as a really weird satellite that shows a sign or two of extensive Celestial over-engineering. Perhaps our MOST lecture in November will provide more details!

Let The Interstellar Wargames Begin!

With all the phenomenal Hubble photos taken, it is nice to know that ground scopes can still take first prize in the imagination-spurring category. The image shown is the star 1RXS J160929.1-210524 and, of far more interest, its planetary companion. If the analysis is correct, this is the FIRST extra-solar planet ever seen, orbiting at a distance 330 times that of the Sun – Earth distance (known as an "Astronomical Unit." Distant Pluto averages only 40 AUs).

New Planet

1RXS J160929.1-210524. From the Gemini North Telescope.

That large separation is the reason for the observation. Even with state-of-the-art equipment, we've not the resolving power to see planets (yet) at AU values that correspond to our own. This is also why the majority of extra-solar systems discovered involve massive planets, as they're the only ones with enough mass to appreciably interact with their suns to make the characteristic "wobbling" or "dimming" signatures that are our evidence for planets.

…And China Makes Three

On Sept. 27, the Chinese (and Zhai Zhigang) became members of an exclusive club as the third independent nation to send an astronaut on an extra-vehicular excursion. Zhai joins Edward White (U.S,. June 3, 1965) and Alexey Leonov (former Soviet Union, March 18, 1965. The Alexey Leonov is the vessel sent to Discovery in Clarke's 2010) as the first men of their nations to take a walk on the near-vacuum side.

Chinese Walk

All dressed up and only one place to go. Zhai "outside" Earth.

The extent to which the U.S. and China are on good terms is manifest in the relative lack of excitement (or concern) by the U.S. Public about the rapid progress of the Chinese Space Program. While I was two decades away from experiencing the whirlwind, I am aware of the ramifications on U.S. politics and science education that the announcement of the successful launch of Sputnik 1 brought.

Jived By That Cosmic Debris

Moon Dust

A vacuum dirtier. Harrison Schmitt of Apollo 17. From NASA.

If anywhere else in the universe, the dust in our vacuum cleaners would be the focus of doctoral theses, multi-million-dollar spectrometers, and NASA podcasts. That the universe is a dirty place did not make itself immediately known to NASA engineers and the flight planners that sent Apollo astronauts to the surface of the Moon. This story from ScienceDaily reports on a joint GSA, SSSA, ASA, CSSA, and GCAGS conference section (yes, you will have to look those up yourself) entitled "Living on a Dusty Moon."

The Moon is a dirty place, responsible for space suit problems and a small dust storm within the lunar return vehicle. According to Larry Taylor of the University of Tennessee about the Apollo 17 mission, "The dust was so abrasive that it actually wore through three layers of Kevlar-like material on (astronaut) Jack's (Schmitt) boot."

SpaceX Marks Their Spot

Far and away the most impressive video you will see on youtube today. The SpaceX company, started by Elon Musk of Paypal fame, has, in their fourth try, made history by putting the first privately-owned rocket into space. The Falcon 1 rockets that serve as the base for orbital endeavors have had their share of press for what didn't go right, starting with their first sub-minute failure to their most recent (before this launch) timing error of the first-stage separation.


The eventual view outside your window. Falcon 1,

We are fortunate that the video feed from the rocket itself proves beyond shadow of doubt that 4's a charm. The photo above is one frame from that video. To see the entire movie (and, more fun, to play it backwards quickly to get an even better sense of the take-off), click HERE to go to the youtube video.

Space is the place,
Damian Allis, Ph.D.

Links Used Above (Subject To Web Changes)…/facultystaff_research.aspx?id=2043