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Stars, clusters, supernovas, nebulas, galaxies:
What are Messier and Other Objects?
STARS DOUBLE & MULTIPLE STARS VARIABLE STARS SUPERNOVAS ASTERISMS
GALAXIES GALAXY CLUSTERS QUASARS MESSIER OBJECTS CONSTELLATIONS
THE BIG DIPPER THE LITTLE DIPPER THE NORTH STAR
STAR WR124 in 1998 Hubble image
click to enlarge [nasa]
A star is a sphere of hot glowing gas, a single ball of fire in space, often millions of miles in diameter. Stars differ in size, brightness and color. The material in some stars is 10,000 times as thin as Earth's air at sea level. On the other hand, some stars are so dense a cupful of material would weigh tons if it could be brought down to Earth. Inside, stars have temperatures measured in millions of degrees. At their surfaces, temperatures up to 55,000 degrees are common. Stars are a long way off, yet all stars visible from Earth, even with telescopes, are within our own Milky Way galaxy. Proxima Centauri, the star nearest Earth, is so far away it's only a pinpoint of light in the largest telescopes on Earth. Astronomers now think many stars may be ringed by planets and other small bodies, just as our Sun has its Solar System of planets, moons, comets and asteroids. Planets reflect starlight, while stars shine with their own light. Earth is a moist rock circling a star in the outer arm of a spiral galaxy we call the Milky Way. We refer to our star as the Sun. We live on one of nine planets which are accompanied by moons, comets, asteroids, gas and dust in a collection of stuff circling our star. We refer to this stuff and the Sun as our Solar System. The Sun is one star among 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, which is a flat disk-shaped spiral galaxy 100,000 lightyears in diameter with a bulge at the center, like a huge blazing pinwheel floating through space.
details > Stars [Hubble]
details > Archive of Latest Photos [Hubble]
details > Best of Hubble [SEDS]
details > The Brightest Stars [SEDS]
details > Naming Stars [SEDS]
DOUBLE AND MULTIPLE STARS
PHI PERSEI binary star system in 1997 Hubble image
click to enlarge [nasa]
Astronomers suggest that half or more of all of the stars we see in the sky actually are star systems that we refer to as double stars or binary stars. There also are multiple star combinations composed of three or more stars. Double and multiple stars orbit around a common center of gravity. Not all combinations of stars that orbit each other in deep space combine in the same way. Sometimes, a bright star has a faint star as its companion. In other instances, both stars are equal in magnitude. Astronomers also see optical double stars, which are two stars that look like they are close together, but actually are far apart. These stars appear close together in the sky only because they lie along the same line of sight. One member of an optical pair is much farther away from Earth. The brightest star in a multiple star system is the primary or A star. Fainter stars in the group are called companion stars and are labeled with the letters B, C, D, etc. It sometimes is possible for observers on Earth to see each star in a binary separately by using seven-power binoculars.
details > Binary Stars [Hubble]
details > Binary and Multiple Stars [SEDS]
details > Double Stars [SEDS]
details > Stars with Planets [Hubble]
details > Winnecke Catalog of Double Stars [SEDS]
GLOBULAR CLUSTER M15 in 1995 Hubble image
click to enlarge [nasa]
When many stars congregate, we call the large-scale object they form a cluster. Astronomers recognize two different kinds of clusters – open and globular. Open clusters, also known as galactic clusters, can contain from only a handful of stars to more than a hundred new stars being born in a single cloud of hydrogen gas and cosmic dust. The clusters are held together by gravity. Globular clusters, on the other hand, are tightly packed balls of thousands or millions of old stars. Astronomers find them forming a halo around the central hub of our Milky Way galaxy. The gobular clusters probably were formed from an earlier generation of stars and so are very old. Estimates of their ages range from 12 to 16 billion years. Our Milky Way galaxy has about 200 globular clusters flying in long oval orbits that take them far outside the galaxy. Other galaxies also have have been seen to have globular cluster systems, sometimes containing thousands of globular clusters.
details > Star Clusters [Hubble]
details > Star Clusters [SEDS]
STAR V838 MONOCEROTIS in 2002 Hubble image
click to enlarge [nasa]
Variables are stars that can be seen to change in brightness over time. Before there were telescopes, stargazers thought their nighttime views were of a permanent nature. While thy saw the planets, the Sun, and the Moon move, and comets come and go across the sky, the stars seemed to remain constant. The fixed stars were seen as a source of stability above an unstable world. There were a few exceptions, of course. There was the occasional rogue star which seemed to misbehave, stimulating awe or fear. For instance, a star seen in the constellation Cetus, the Whale, sometimes was bright and easily seen. At others, it became very dim. Ancient stargazers named it Mira, which means wonderful. Another star was named Algol and thought of as a demon star. It was the mythological evil eye of Medusa's decapitated head in the constellation Perseus. Ancient stargazers imagined Algol winked at them as its light varied over a three day period. Today, telescopes tell us that Mira and Algol are variable stars. Now we have a catalog of thousands of variable stars. Their fluctuations in brightness range from only a fraction of one magnitude up to ten or more full magnitudes. Astronomers have identified several different kinds of variable stars &ndash pulsating, erupting, and eclipsing.
The brightness that a star appears to exhibit is its apparent magnitude. From our perspective on Earth, a star's magnitude depends on its distance from Earth and how bright it really is – its absolute magnitude. Astronomers plot changes in brightness over time on a graph called a light curve.
- For example, Mira is a pulsating variable. They are old red giant stars that expand and contract in diameter like a beating heart. They pulsate over weeks or months.
- On the other hand, an erupting variable star unpredictably changes brightness suddenly. The brightening lasts for periods ranging from a few minutes to a few days. An example might be a nova star that abruptly increases in brightness by five or more magnitudes and then fades back to its original brightness over a few weeks.
- Then there are stars like Algol, which is an example of an eclipsing binary. Such stars don't actually fluctuate in brightness. Rather, they are covered and uncovered by unseen orbiting companions. From the point of view of an observer on Earth, as the companion passes in front of or behind the system's primary star, their combined brightness fades. The original brightness returns after the eclipse ends. Astronomers measure the length of time and the range of brightness to tell how far apart the two stars are. Algol, for instance, seems to be about six million miles from its companion and takes just under three days to circle around it.
details > Variable Stars [Hubble]
details > Variable Stars [Chandra]
details > Variable Stars [SEDS]
details > The First Known Variable Stars [SEDS]
CYGNUS LOOP supernova in 1995 Hubble image
click to enlarge [nasa]
A supernova is the explosive death of a massive star. In 1054, a guest star was seen by the Chinese. It was a supernova explosion witnessed in the area of Earth's sky known as the constellation Taurus where, much later, astronomers would find an expanding gas cloud they would call the Crab Nebula. In 1572, Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe observed a supernova, changing everything by demonstrating that celestial bodies are not unchanging.
Astronomers have wondered for a long time why certain supernova explosions create magnificent nebulas, yet leave no spinning pulsar at the center. This abnormal situation has been a problem for astronomers trying to calculate star births and deaths and the ages of galaxies and the Universe.
- A neutron star is a small, powerful body left behind when a massive star dies in a supernova explosion.
- A pulsar is formed when a neutron star spins and its magnetic field produces what we receive as a repeating, clocklike energy signal of radio, light, X-ray and gamma rays.
details > Supernovas [Hubble]
EGG NEBULA in 1997 Hubble image
click to enlarge [nasa]
Nebulas are shadowy clouds of gas and dust lurking in the spiral arms of our Milky Way galaxy. There are emission nebulas, reflection nebulas, dark nebulas, and planetary nebulas:
Supernova remnants are the dust and gas remains of very violent stellar explosions.
- Emission nebulas shine on their own. Ultraviolet light from nearby stars excites their hydrogen gas, causing it to fluoresce.
- Reflection nebulas do not glow. Instead, tiny dust particles in the nebula reflect visible light from nearby stars.
- Dark nebulas are cold dust and gas that absorb or scatter visible light from nearby stars. We know they are there when they block out the light visible coming from behind them.
- Planetary nebulas are the gas and dust shells expelled by aging stars. They look like small bright disks. Although planetaries usually have very bright surfaces, their faint central stars often are difficult to detect without really large telescopes.
details > Nebulas [Hubble]
CARTWHEEL GALAXY in 1995 Hubble image
click to enlarge [nasa]
A galaxy is a vast island of stars floating through the Universe – a cloud of millions or billions of stars attracted to each other and held close by their gravity, while floating as a group through the Universe. There seem to be more galaxies strewn across the Universe than grains of sand on a beach. Astronomers have seen galaxies of many different shapes and sizes. Most common are flat pinwheel spirals, egg-shaped ellipticals, and oddly-shaped irregulars. The galaxies most widely known are Andromeda Galaxy, Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy and, of course, our own Milky Way galaxy
While a Milky Way may be a candy bar, the Milky Way is a collection of hundreds of billions of stars traveling through the Universe together like a giant cloud floating across the sky. Our own star is the Sun. It is just one among the 750 billion to one trillion stars that astronomers say compose the Milky Way galaxy. If you think about it, that's a whole lot of stars. To top that, there are untold trillions or quadrillions or quintillions of galaxies beyond our own. Each of those galaxies also is a giant cloud of stars traveling through the Universe. Imagine how many stars there must be across the whole Universe!
- Many galaxies are very, very far away. In fact, some may be at the most distant edge of the Universe. The light arriving from them takes so long to get to Earth that what we see originated very far back in time. Looking at them is like staring back into the history of the Universe. One faraway clutch of stars is estimated to be as much as15 billion lightyears away. It is known as 4C41.17 and is one of the most distant known galaxies. A lightyear is approximately 5.9 trillion miles.
- There are untold trillions of galaxies strewn across the Universe like grains of sand on a vast beach. From our earliest times we've looked up and wondered what's out there. From our perspective down on Earth, stars seem to hold the same positions in the sky year after year. Over many centuries they do appear to move, however, as our Solar System slowly circles the core of our own Milky Way galaxy.
Our Solar System is a set of nine planets plus asteroids and comets surrounding our star, the Sun. Most of the hundreds of billions of other stars in the Milky Way may have their own solar systems. For an individual star of the Milky Way to be seen distinctly in Earth's night sky, it must lie sufficiently close to our Solar System to be discerned separately.
- Our Milky Way is about 100,000 light years in diameter. Radioastronomy shows it to be a spiral shaped galaxy.
- Our galaxy is named Milky Way because it appears to observers as a faintly luminous band of stars stretching across Earth's night sky. The hazy appearance of the Milky Way results from the combined light of of the many stars too far away to be distinguished individually by a naked eye.
The Milky Way is a flattened spiral galaxy that spins. You might imagine it flying through space like a giant Frisbee at a speed of more than a million miles an hour.
- On a night that seems especially dark outside, go someplace far from outdoor lighting. Look up into the sky for a faint, hazy, whitish band of starlight that spans the heavens. That band will be the Milky Way galaxy.
- You may notice that the Milky Way looks splotchy with darker regions interspersed with lighter regions. The dark patches in front of the brighter background are opaque clouds of clumped dust grains known as dark nebulae.
- All of the stars that we can see belong to the Milky Way and we only can see a tiny fraction of our Milky Way. Altogether, we can distinguish only about 2,000 individual stars. However, on a dark night, you can see clusters of stars and galaxies and get an idea of the Milky Way's vastness.
- Through a small pair of binoculars you can see that the Milky Way is composed of many distant stars packed so tightly together that they seem to be almost touching one another.
Astronomers have seen several different galaxy shapes:
- The Milky Way revolves once every 225 million years. That means it takes our Sun and its Solar System 225 million years to travel all the way around the center of the galaxy.
- A ray of light takes 100,000 years to cross the galaxy. That means the Milky Way is 100,000 lightyears across. Its thickness at the bulging center of the galactic disk is 1,000 lightyears. Our Solar System lies about two-thirds of the way out from the center of the galaxy.
Astronomers believe they see an extraordinarily powerful object – a black hole – at the center of the Milky Way.
- Spiral galaxies, like our Milky Way, have a bulge of old stars at the center surrounded by wrap-around spiral arms of young stars amidst clouds of dust and gas.
- Barred spiral galaxies display a central bar of material.
- Elliptical galaxies are clumps of elderly stars in shapes from spherical to flat.
- Irregular galaxies have no symmetry and are odd chaotic shapes.
- Peculiar galaxies are rare and don't have any of the above shapes.
details > Galaxies [Hubble]
details > Galaxies [SEDS]
SEYFERT'S SEXTET galaxy group in 2002 Hubble image
click to enlarge [nasa]
Galaxies cluster together just as stars cluster together. Clusters range from a few dozen galaxies to several thousand. The galaxies are held in their cluster by gravity. The big cluster of galaxies nearest to us is the Virgo Cluster. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is a member of a smaller group of galaxies known as the Local Group. It contains three large galaxies and more than 30 smaller galaxies. In turn, the Local Group and other nearby groups of galaxies are part of the so-called Local Supercluster, or Virgo Supercluster, which is dominated by the big Virgo Cluster. The powerful gravity of the big clusters like Virgo attract small groups and individual galaxies and small clusters in their neighborhood. As that happens, the big clusters grow and heat up, which causes them to expand. Astronomers don't know yet whether our Local Group will eventually be swallowed by the Virgo cluster.
details > Galaxy Clusters [Hubble]
QUASAR 3C273 in 2003 Hubble image
click to enlarge [nasa]
In the 1960s, astronomers came across some extremely bright, very small objects that apparently are as far away as an object can be across the Universe. They named the newly-found objects quasi-stellar radio sources, or quasars for short. Today, most astronomers think quasars are the highly luminous hearts of distant galaxies. No one knows how they produce their vast energy but they apparently are up to a thousand times brighter then the average galaxy – possibly 10 to 1,000 times brighter. They seem to be extraordinarily small, maybe only one or two lightyears in diameter. That would compare with our own Milky Way galaxy, which is 100,000 lightyears in diameter. Quasars are receding from the Earth. In fact, calculations suggest that quasars are moving away from us at speeds approaching that of light and that their distance from the Earth is enormous – as far away as 14 billion lightyears at the horizon of the known Universe. Quasars radiate prodigious amounts of energy in the form of X rays, ultraviolet rays, radio waves, and other forms of electromagnetic radiation. Astronomers wonder if the energy source might be gas spiraling into a massive black hole at the heart of the distant galaxy.
details > Quasars [Hubble]
Objects in Messier Catalog
Open Star Clusters 26 Globular Clusters 29 Spiral Galaxies 28 Elliptical Galaxies 11 Irregular Galaxy 1
Diffuse Nebulas 7 Planetary Nebulas 4 Asterisms 3 Supernova Remnant 1 Total 110
From 1758 to 1782, the French astronomer Charles Messier cataloged 110 celestial objects that he worried might be mistaken for comets. His catalog includes galaxies, star clusters and nebulas in 36 different constellations seen in the night sky. Among the best known are the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), the Orion Nebula (M42), and the Pleiades (M45) star cluster. France's King Louis XV nicknamed Messier the Comet Ferret. Messier's friend Pierre Méchain contributed some 30 star findings to the catalog.
details > Messier Catalog Object Images [SEDS]
details > Messier Catalog Object Images [IPAC]
details > Messier Catalog Object Images [DSS]
details > Messier Catalog of Nebulae and Clusters [OBSPM]
Constellation Families Bayer Group Heavenly Waters Hercules Family La Caille Family Orion Family Perseus Family Ursa Major Family Zodiacal Family
When we look into the night sky,the stars seem to form groups. We call the large groups constellations. The mythical constellation named Ursa Major – the Big Bear – contains many stars including a few that seem to form a shape of an object that we call the Big Dipper. Another well-known constellation is Orion. For most people, the first step to understanding a map of all of the sky is to learn the names of the 88 constellations that compose all of the sky. The stars in the constellations are not necessarily close to each other in space. For example, the middle five stars of the Big Dipper are relatively close to each other, but the first and last stars only look like they are in the same group. Actually, they are much farther from Earth than the middle five. In fact, they are moving slowly away from each other. Some stars the we see in the constellation Orion are relatively close together, but one bright red star we see in the constellation, Betelgeuse, is much nearer to Earth than the others in the constellation. The 88 constellations have been divided into eight constellation families. Mankind first gave names to stars and groups of stars in the days of the Babylonians and Chaldeans, 2000 to 3000 years ago. Constellations were named by ancient sailors as they observed the stars for navigation. Desert people also used stars to find their way. Each culture saw different groups in the sky and named them after familiar objects on Earth. Most of the constellation names we use today came from the ancient Greeks who thought they saw the figures of their gods and heroes in the sky. Greece is in the Northern Hemisphere and they only named those they could see. Other regions of the night sky around the celestial south pole were named by astronomer Johan Bayer who honored the tradition of the ancient Greeks by using names connected to the sea. French astronomer La Caille named the last 13 to cover sparsely-populated regions between the existing constellation. He named most of the 13 after science instruments.
details > Table of Constellations [SEDS]
details > Constellation Families [SEDS]
Asterisms Beehive Belt of Orion Bier Big Dipper Bull of Poniatowski Circlet Coalsack Frederick's Glory Guardians of the Pole Head of Cetus Heavenly G Hyades Hydra Head Job's Coffin Keystone Kids Lozenge Milk Dipper Northern Cross Northern Fly Pleiades Segment of Perseus Sickle Square of Pegasus Sword of Orion Venus Mirror Y of Aquarius source: seds
An asterism is a group of stars that appear to form a visual symbol in the night sky, but also are part of a constellation, which itself is a visual symbol in the night sky. The best known asterism is the Big Dipper, which is part of the constellation Great Bear. The stars in the Great Bear that form the Big Dipper are alpha UMa, beta UMa, gamma UMa, delta UMa, epsilon UMa, zeta UMa and eta UMa. Other well-known asterisms include the Belt of Orion, which is created by the stars delta Ori, epsilon Ori and zeta Ori. The Sword of Orion is composed of the stars theta Ori and iota Ori. The Northern Cross is formed by stars of the constellation Cygnus known as alpha Cyg, beta Cyg, gamma Cyg, delta Cyg and epsilon Cyg. The beautiful asterism Pleiades is an open star cluster located in the constellation Taurus. Pleiades also is known as the Seven Sisters and, in Latin America, the Seven Little Goats. Other asterisms are the Beehive, Bier, the Bull of Poniatowski, Circlet, Coalsack, Frederick's Glory, Guardians of the Pole, Head of Cetus, Heavenly G, Hyades, Hydra Head, Job's Coffin, Keystone, Kids, Lozenge, Milk Dipper, Northern Cross, Northern Fly, Segment of Perseus, Sickle, Square of Pegasus, Venus Mirror, and Y of Aquarius.
details > Table of Asterisms [SEDS]
THE BIG AND LITTLE DIPPERS
The Big Dipper
What is and isn't the Big Dipper?
Native American legend describes the bowl as a bear and the handle as three warriors chasing it. In the fall when the the asterism was low in the evening sky, tree leaves turned red because hunters had injured the bear, drawing blood, according to legend.
- It is one of the best known and most recognizable patterns of stars in the night sky.
- It is not a constellation, but an asterism, which is a distinctive group of stars.
- It is part of a constellation known as the Great Bear (Ursa Major).
- It is a group of seven bright stars. Three form the handle of the dipper and four form the bowl of the dipper.
- Ancient skywatchers saw the Big Dipper's handle as the tail of a great bear and the Big Dipper's cup as the flank of the great bear.
Elsewhere on Earth, local cultures saw the Big Dipper as a plow, a cart, a wagon and even a bull's thigh. The Chinese are said to have seen it as representing the government.
In the United States, the Big Dipper played the role of a Drinking Gourd in the Civil War. The Underground Railroad wasn't a real railroad, but rather a network of people who helped slaves escape from the South. Most slaves couldn't read so word was spread by song — follow the Drinking Gourd north to a better life.
What is the Little Dipper?
- It, also, is a well-known and recognizable patterns of stars in the night sky.
- It, too, is an asterism, not a constellation.
- It is part of a constellation known as the Little Bear (Ursa Minor).
- Ancient skywatchers saw the Little Dipper's handle as the tail of a little bear and the Little Dipper's cup as the flank of the little bear.
THE NORTH STAR
The North Star is a very well known object, also seen in the sky constellation Ursa Minor. Its proper name is Polaris, and it is the star seen as nearest to Earth's North Celestial Pole. If you were to stand at Earth's north pole, Polaris would be just about directly overhead. In fact, you can always tell which way is north by finding Polaris in the sky. Using a little math, the angle of Polaris above the horizon reveals your latitude on Earth. The North Star always has been the most important star for ships navigating the global oceans.
Of course, things change. Polaris won't always be the North Star. Earth's wobbles around its axis like a spinning top. The wobble is precession brought on by the the gravitational attraction of the Sun and the Moon and the fact that Earth is not a perfect sphere. About 14,000 years from now, the star Vega will move into position as our North Star. But then, after another 14,000 years, Polaris will return to the North Star position.
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