Mission 10: The Great GlobNovember 19, 2009
Mission Objectives: Constellation, Globular cluster
Equipment: Sky map, Naked eye, Binoculars, Telescope
Required Time: 5 minutes
Related Missions: Summer Triangle
Introduction: This is a weird time of year. The classic “summer” constellations are still visible right after sunset, and by bedtime the winter constellations–especially Orion–are already coming over the eastern horizon. Of course the globe of the sky is (relatively) unchanging and you can see an angular span of the same width on any night of the year. Nothing is actually accelerated right now. It only feels odd because of the associations these stars have for me. Say “Hercules” and I think warm summer evenings and junebugs. The Pleiades, on the other hand, conjure up memories of gloves, stocking hats, and the crystaline quality of the air on a cold winter’s night. And yet you can see these things on opposite sides of the sky at the same time!
Owing to my long hiatus this fall, I let a few of the great summer objects almost get away from me. Meanwhile, a host of excellent autumn targets are high overhead even at dusk. So we’ve got no time to waste.
Instructions: Find Vega in the western sky right after sunset, and then look below it to find the back-to-back trapezoids that make up the body of Hercules. I strongly recommend taking a planisphere or sky map, such as one of the free seasonal ones here or here. If you’re like me, you can look at the map indoors, fix the points and relationships in your mind’s eye, go outside and instantly get lost. Hercules doesn’t have any first magnitude stars to help you orient, and there are far too many medium-brightness stars, so the number of possible trapezoids you can construct is large. This is where the directions I can give break down; there is just no substitute for having the map in your hand, especially since the free ones are so good these days. See how many of the stars west of Vega you can see with the naked eye, and then draw a trail that will guide you from Vega down to where you need to go. The path you find will be the one that makes the most sense to you.
You’ll know for sure when you’ve got the right trapezoids, because 2/3 of the way along the western edge of the northern trapezoid is a fuzzy ball. This is M13, the Great Globular Cluster in Hercules. If you are under super dark skies you might just make it out with the naked eye as a dim and blurry star. Under all but the worst city lights, you can sweep between the two boundary stars and pick it up in binoculars. In 10x50s it is an attractive ball of fuzz, and in 15x70s it is a slightly larger, brighter, and more appealing ball of fuzz. In a small telescope some of M13’s 100,000 stars start to resolve, like a spill of very fine sugar on black velvet. In a big telescope, like my friend’s 16-incher, it is almost overwhelming; the eyepiece is so full of stars that it gets to be too much for the eye–and the mind–to take in. I found myself repeatedly looking away to give myself a break. That’s good stargazing.
Like M22 in Sagittarius and all other known globular clusters, M13 is old, and I mean old even for astronomy, where a five-billion-year-old star like the sun is something of a youngster. Even if all you have to see it with is binoculars, there is something special about tickling your retinas with the light of 100,000 twelve-billion-year-old suns.
Photo from APOD.