M13: The Great Globular Cluster in Hercules Photo: MARTIN PUGH / NASA
29 Sep 2015
Stellar act: the heart of the M13 Globular Cluster Photo: NASA/ESA Hubble
The science fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut, in his SF novel The Sirens of Titan, wittily put into words what he thought about such pictures and our reactions to them: “Every passing hour brings our solar system forty three thousand miles closer to Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules and still there are some misfits who insist that there is no such thing as progress.”
Like other weird phenomena of the cosmos, globular clusters seem to defy common sense. Each galaxy is surrounded by hundreds of them. They are typically composed of about 300,000 stars (the size of M13). Imagine how brilliant their night skies must be when I say that each cluster is crammed into a space of barely 150 light-years wide.
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They may be as old as the universe itself which sounds absurd, since otherwise it wouldn’t be the universe. But some of the stars in the clusters are as old if not older than the universe’s oldest stars, a perplexing mystery.
Another mystery surrounds the constellation of Lacerta the Lizard, a neighbour of Hercules in the north-western sky. Known as the Lizard thousands of years ago in ancient China (before being officially named so in 1687), the Chumash native people of California called this region of the sky by the same name for many millennia. How did the name spread so far? Perhaps it was a legend carried by migrants during age-long wanderings.
The northern half of Lacerta crosses the Milky Way, making it an exciting region to look at, especially with binoculars. Deep inside this starry cloud is a mysterious object called BL Lacertae. This is a faint star which blazes forth massively at very regular intervals. This interval shows its distance, and since many galaxies contain similar objects, they help tell us the size of the universe.
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Thousands of times closer is the mysterious planet of the star HAT-P-1, which is lighter than a giant ball of cork. Nearly half again the size of Jupiter, its mass is only half Jupiter’s. “It would float in a bath if you could find a bath big enough to hold it,” said Harvard scientist Gaspar Bakos.
A very massive black hole has been found 8,500 light-years away in Lacerta, and here I must make a personal boast. In 1977 I wrote a book called The Iron Sun: Crossing the Universe through Black Holes arguing that spaceships could use black holes as tunnels to other parts of the universe, making possible interstellar travel.
Few people agreed at the time, but in August the great Stephen Hawking calculated that astronauts making this terrifying journey could at least make it through to another universe. Not much practical use since the nearest known black hole is 1,600 light-years away, but still …
Locally, Jupiter and Venus come within a degree of each other at 8 am on the 26th.
Venus, Jupiter and noctilucent clouds pictured over the Sec Reservoir in the Czech Republic on June 29 2015 Photo: PETR HORALEK / NASA
The Night Sky in October 2015
The chart below by Pete Lawrence (see the full-size chart [in the full article]) shows the sky at the start of October. The positions of the stars on other nights can be found from previous charts, for they rise two hours earlier each month. Thus, the appearance of the sky at 10 pm at the start of October (except for the Moon and planets) is identical to that a month ago. The Moon, full on the 27th and new on the 13th, is shown in its various phases. The hazy area represents the billions of stars of the Milky Way. Constellations are in white, and the brighter stars are ringed and yellow. The larger the ring, the brighter the star.
Telegraph Night Sky October 2015 Photo: PETE LAWRENCE
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Please help promote STEM in your local schools.
Near the center of Pasadena, California, a team of scientists, engineers, and project specialists is busily planning and designing what eventually will become the most advanced and powerful optical telescope on Earth. When completed later this decade, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) will enable astronomers to study objects in our own solar system and stars throughout our Milky Way and its neighboring galaxies, and forming galaxies at the very edge of the observable Universe, near the beginning of time.
The Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy
California Institute of Technology
Department of Science and Technology of India
The National Astronomical Observatories, Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC)
National Astronomical Observatory of Japan
University of California