The Trick Is The Treat

An AFSIG Article by: Paul Trittenbach

Under the darkness of a new moon sky on October 31 ghosts and demons will arise from the netherworld and walk upon the earth. This is the day of Samhain (pronounced “Sah-win”), summer’s end, a 2000-year-old Pre-Christian Celtic celebration held around November 1 for the ending of summer and the time of harvest. Some historical legends purport that the Celts lit bon fires and donned costumes to ward off the dead. In the eighth century Pope Gregory III declared November 1 All Saints Day and incorporated some of the Celtic celebration into the Christian.

Perhaps when humans invented religion we had a need to explain the good and evil we saw in each other, so we balanced the equation by creating the good gods above and the evil ones below. It is a theme that has permeated our literature and movies and has been handed down since the first spoken languages have appeared in our species. And throughout our history almost every culture has celebrated the dead in one way or another. All Hallows Eve was the evening before All Saints Day and later evolved into the modern day celebration of Halloween.

Modern-day Halloween is a playful way of dealing with death. It is a time when little goblins of the neighborhood come out to invade the night seeking treats and promising nasty little tricks to those who fail to deliver. To me, this night when the moon is dark is a great opportunity to dispel some of those demons with science. I propose that you offer them a treat they seldom if ever have experienced: a star party. It is an opportunity for fun suffused with education.

We begin our tour of celestial eye candy by introducing the pralines of the northern hemisphere: the double cluster of the constellation Perseus. NGC 869 and 884 lie 7,500 light years away. Star clusters are groups of stars that are gravitationally bound to each other and moving independently of the rest of the galaxy. The Perseus Double Cluster are the only two known clusters in the Milky Way that are gravitationally bound to each other and moving as a single component at 39 km/s (24mi/s) in our direction.

Each cluster consists of 300 known members of young blue-white stars 12.8 million years old. At the time when the light left these clusters to appear in the eyepiece of your telescope the first established human civilization was firmly planted between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the ancient land of Mesopotamia — it is today called Iraq. These were the Samarians, from which we have derived our modern-day word of summer. To them, as to us, the double cluster appears as a large, somewhat milky patch in the sky overhead and can easily be seen from a dark location.

This pair of open clusters is a stunning example of the treats available to amateur astronomers. I tell guests at public star parties that when they see these sparkling diamonds against the velvet black of space they will ask themselves why they never got involved in this hobby sooner. There are numerous other open clusters that you can compare against the Perseus Double Cluster; M38, 39, 34, 11 and the most infamous: M45, the Pleiades.

In contrast to the aforementioned open clusters are the globular clusters, such as M13. If the double cluster is the pralines of celestial eye candy then globular clusters must be the gumdrops.Turning to the globular’s immediately after showing the open clusters yields a stunning, “wow” moment for the audience. In addition to the visual impact of viewing the two types of clusters, both possess opposite historical and compositional backgrounds.

Globular clusters reside at the opposite end of the age spectrum. They are fossils of the cosmos nearly as old as the universe itself. M13 is 11.65 billion years old! Unlike open clusters which formed inside our Milky Way, globular clusters are nomads roaming the universe and temporarily taking up residence inside the halo of our galaxy. They are densely packed associations of stars — the proverbial Guinness book example of “how many people can you fit into a phone booth”.

On the evening of October 31 M13 will be in the western part of the sky, just above the horizon. This is the most densely packed globular cluster available to most of the northern hemisphere (Tucson, Arizona lies close enough to the southern hemisphere to catch a view of the Omega Centauri cluster). M13 consists of 300,000 known stars compacted into a spherical volume of 145 ly! In addition to explaining what a light year is in terms of distance, M13 is an exercise in warping the mind around celestial mechanics.

You can compare the distance between Earth and its nearest stellar neighbor, Proxima Centauri at 4.2 light years, away to the same spherical area at the center of M13. In the 4.2 light year distance between us and our nearest our neighbor M13 would have 100 stars! In the same spherical distance of 4.2 light years the core of M13 would be the residence of 1000 stars! You can point out that the known members of a star cluster are those that we are able to visually count and that the Milky Way is dominated by binary stars in addition to other star systems that consist of three or more members circling either one another or a common invisible axis.

At the time when the Kerbarian cave Culture of Haifa, modern day Israel, was being established the light from M13 was departing to arrive in your eyepiece. While those people were fabricating stone tools light from 300,000 stars shone brightly into the universe. M13 is located 22,200 miles away in the constellation of Hercules. It is a popular summertime object among amateur astronomers. From a dark site it appears as a small fuzzy patch and is easily viewed through a pair of binoculars or a small telescope. Telescopes, however, will resolve the patch into stars.

M2 and M15 both provide good examples of globular star clusters. M2 is probably easier to present from an urban area because of its magnitude of 6.4. At one time star clusters were grouped with the species of nebulae — murky patches of light scattered among the stars. The word nebula is ancient Greek for “cloud” and before the invention of telescope star clusters, galaxies and true nebulas were all cloud-like structures in appearance. Even into the early 20th century the Andromeda galaxy was known as the Andromeda nebula.

Now that you’ve demonstrated the magic of star clusters try pulling a binary star out of your hat. The constellation Cygnus, the Swan, hangs west of Zenith in October. Beta Cygni, otherwise known as Albireo appears as a single star to the unaided eye. However, it presents one of the most stunning binaries in the Milky Way galaxy. Albireo is also a test in color perception. One star is a cool orange while the other one is a hot blue. To my eyes, the primary appears as a golden yellow and the secondary is a hot blue. Together the two stars present a striking color contrast.

Alberio is located 380 ly (Light years) from Earth. Harvard University was being established when the light left Albireo to arrive In your eyepiece. The first and second component orbit each other with a period of 75,000 years. Two thirds of the stars in the Milky Way are binaries but few of them can boast the visual impact of Albireo. In addition to showing Albireo you may want to show the most common Milky Way binary, Polaris.

If you’re in the mood for telling ghost stories then nothing can be more appropriate than showing them a nebula. The best of the summer nebulae, the Trifid, Lagoon and Eagle lay low on the horizon. Those who have a good view of the southern sky may still be able to catch a fleeting glimpse of them. But there are other ghosts in the sky that we can turn our telescopes to.

Aside from most of the planetary’s, reflection and emission nebulae appear as ghostly apparitions of black and white clouds hanging in space. M27, the Dumbbell nebula, is one exception. From our viewing angle the dumbbell not only appears dumbbell-shaped, because of the way that its lobes have expanded from the white dwarf driving it, but it also appears black-and-white to our eyes. Located 1200 away these expanding clouds of gas have been blown from a star similar to our sun 4000 years ago. At the time of this star’s death the Babylonians were developing mathematics.

The outburst of expanding gas lobes witnessed on M27 are one light year across and expanding outward at a velocity of 20 mi./s. The Dumbbell nebula was the first Planetary Nebula (PN) ever discovered. An Ultra High Contrast filter (UHC) will help you to pull out the details of the Dumbbell. An additional nebula to look for would be the North America nebula. For additional details on the North American nebula see my Cosmic Gems article from August.

For a nebula of a different color try M57, the Ring nebula. At the time when the light left this nebula 2300 years ago King Ptolemy II of Egypt was only a few years away from building the very first lighthouse at the mouth of the Nile. It would be 400 feet high and seen from 40 miles away. But the Ring nebula is a more substantial lighthouse, with the light being pumped out by a remnant of a star of similar mass to our sun, which upon exhausting its hydrogen fuel shed its outer layers in the last, great gasp of death. The remnant of the star is a white dwarf no larger than our earth.

Viewed from our position the outward expanding shell of gas and dust are excited by the ultraviolet radiation emitted by the white dwarf and radiating a rainbow of colors. Although M57 is also a planetary nebula it is a colorful contrast to that of M27. The nebula’s expanding shell of gas is 1.3 light years in diameter. Nebulae provide an opportunity to discuss how chemicals are formed within stars and the explosions that occur after their death. It is also an opportunity to explain how new stars are formed along with any planets or life that may occur on them.

You gotta have monsters! No Halloween story would be complete without them. So now we turn to the Alpha Star of the Constellation Taurus: Aldebaran. Aldebaran, the eye of the bull, is an orange giant star located 65 ly away. When the light left the star Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were being convicted of selling A-bomb secrets to the Soviet Union by the United States.

Aldebaran is a variable star but his variability is virtually unnoticeable to the human eye. It is also a binary star, possessing a secondary that is only three light seconds away (as opposed to our sun which is eight light minutes away).At 43 times the radius of our sun ( the radius of our sun is 432,000 miles) Aldebaran is a monster, although far from being the largest star known. The largest star on record is VY Canis Majoris, a red hyper giant and a eighth magnitude star 1420 times the radius of our sun!

Of course if you really want to talk about monsters point to the area of Cygnus X1. You will not be able to show them this black hole through your telescope but you can tell them that it was the first confirmed radio source verified as a black hole. Black holes like Cygnus X1 are the Frankenstein’s of nature. Cygnus X1 is considered to be a stellar mass black hole possessing 14.8 times the mass of our sun. It is located 6,070 ly from Earth.

Periodically stars many times the mass of our sun exhaust their fuel and the remaining material loses his outward push against the attraction of gravity. The mass of the star is so great that the gravitational attraction overwhelms all existing matter which collapses inward to an point known as a singularity — a word that means “mystery”. So powerful is the attraction of gravity that nothing can escape it, even light itself. As a result, black holes are mysterious in nature, having yielded up clues only from stars around them — some of them they are cannibalizing.

The nearby star orbiting Cygnus X1 is HDE226868 a ninth magnitude O-type supergiant star. You should be able to locate this star through your telescope. Here is an opportunity to explain the invisible electromagnetic spectrum and the x-ray radio source that makes detecting a black hole possible. It’s also a chance to discuss the radio spectrum and how humans use it in our modern world.

Physicists and mathematicians have determined that the space and time near black holes is radically changed from the Newtonian laws of the universe. As a result, black holes have become a favorite subject of science fiction — including Star Trek where the Enterprise frequently utilizes them to travel back in time. Studies indicate that black holes are quite abundant throughout the universe. In fact, it is an irony that black holes seem to be destructors of stars and also the creators of galaxies.

The last object that I want to cover in my Halloween star party is M31, the Andromeda galaxy (Andromeda nebula). The Andromeda galaxy is a large spiral galaxy, like our Milky Way, except possessing twice the mass. Andromeda has 1 trillion stars and is the largest galaxy in our local group, a group of 45 galaxies, which constitutes part of a super cluster of 2000 galaxies known as the Virgo Super Cluster. It is approximately 220,000 ly across (the Milky Way is 190 ly across) and 2.5 million ly from Earth. At the time when the light first left the Andromeda galaxy to appear in your eyepiece humans were fashioning their very first tools.

M31 is our nearest galactic neighbor. It is on a collision course with our galaxy, which will take place in 3.75 billion years. It is visible to the naked eye as a large fuzzy patch in the constellation of Andromeda. It is visible through pair binoculars and easily viewed through low power in a telescope. The nucleus of Andromeda is so bright that overwhelms the eye of the observer Tell your guests that to get a good view they should use adverted vision — turn their eyes slightly off center of the galaxy to see the details.

I think a themed star party like one for Halloween would be a great way to have fun while providing education and sharing a fascinating hobby. I can envision some of you dressed up as Darth Vader and turning the little goblins of your neighborhood toward dark side of day. A star party like this would be a great team builder for your organization — with opportunities for a variety of topics, from mythology to science, history and science fiction, art and culture. It’s an chance to demonstrate how we’ve come a long way from how the ancients thought about the universe to science casting light upon the truth.

Of course a Halloween star party is about serving celestial eye candy. But it would be a nasty trick to forget the confectionery treats. Halloween is a costume party, and not just one for the youngsters, with sugary rewards. Perhaps in 4 million years when Andromeda merges with our galaxy we will have a new name for candy bar. For now, we still have the old standbys that we grew up with: Three Musketeers, Snickers, Baby Ruth, Kit Kat… — to share with the younger generations. But for now and into the foreseeable future, remember, you can’t star gaze without the Milky Way!