Let me start by saying that every reader who is currently in an area experiencing a severe drought should consider buying a new telescope. Since the telescope first arrived in late March, there have been exactly six (6) nights in my area that have not been cloudy or rainy. In fact, the next two months set records for rain and wind. Maybe strategic telescope purchases could bring the Colorado River back to the track.
And yes, it was all a joke. Consider it a result of disappointment in the telescope.
In any case, there were some opportunities to get out of this range and hopefully more as we enter the usually drier months of summer. Here’s a quick example of a shot taken on one of those good, clear evenings.
Everyday space: the spherical cluster of Hercules
It is strange to think that things visible to everyone in the night sky should be “discovered”, but it is true. In the case of the globular cluster of Hercules, this discoverer was Edward Halley – yes, the comet man – who cataloged this feature of the sky in 1714 with the help of a 24-foot telescope purchased for him by his priest. The Haleys were in good shape. Although they weren’t exactly royalty. The older Haley had made his fortune with a factory that produced one of the great hits of the late 17th century: scented soaps. Given how London had a reputation for smelling at the time, it’s easy to see how the tupens came together.
With an apparent magnitude of 5.8, the globular cluster of Hercules is just visible to people with good eyesight in good conditions. Hailey may have been easier to spot in these less light-polluted days. For the average person in the modern world, it helps to have binoculars and a good idea of where to point them – which is not surprising, that it is at a point in the constellation Hercules. This is about a third of the way between the bright stars Vega and Arcturus. You can see it great star map at about 35 degrees, 5 p.m.
If you manage to get good binoculars aimed at the right place, you will see something that looks like a slightly blurred “star”. What Haley saw through his relatively massive range was just a larger blur. For all the dimensions of his instrument, he had no way of recording an image, so the only thing he could see was what the photons striking his eye could reveal at any moment. Halley’s appearance was not as good as the one above – which was produced with a range that is only 15 “long and 1.5” wide. It took another 80 years for Halley to mark the position of the Hercules Cup before anyone could build a good enough telescope to make sure it was actually a group of individual stars, not some nebula.
In fact, the cluster contains at least several hundred thousand stars. But this is not a galaxy. This spot of stars is absolutely part of the Milky Way. It is about 22,000 light-years from Earth, which looks a lot, but is much closer than millions of light-years away to even the nearest neighboring galaxies. Such clusters are found in almost all galaxies, but their origins remain mysterious.
Several such clusters have been identified in the Milk War. Some are clearly colored, as the stars in the bowl are usually of a certain age and size. But the Hercules cluster contains stars of many kinds, from old red giants to brand new stars blazing in brilliant blue and white. It is a ball of stars 125 light-years wide that revolves around a central point and somehow creates its own form of relative stability.
As well as being one of the largest such clusters in our galaxy, the globular cluster of Hercules has another claim to fame. As early as 1974, SETI researchers decided to take a break from listening to send an active message from Earth. They used the ill-fated Arecibo Radio Telescope to send an encrypted message that, for those smart enough to decode, contains information about the periodic table of elements, the structure of DNA, where the Earth is and the basic shape of humans. They directed him to the Hercules cluster.
If their goal was good enough (and there is debate) and someone at the other end has a radio telescope a few an order of magnitude better than anything humanity has ever created, they need to understand the message … in about 21,952 years.