Cloud-free nights have been a bit thin on the ground, but last Sunday night provided a great opportunity to photograph some spectacular galaxies from Picnic Point on Lake Cairn Curran.
Our galaxy, the Milky Way, consists of about 200-400 billion stars. Its centre is in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius. Due to the intense concentration of gravity, dust and gasses it is a very busy place of star formation. The dark areas are dense clouds of gas.
In the eighteenth century, comets were objects of great interest. Charles Messier was an avid seeker of comets and drew up a catalogue of the fuzzy things he saw through his tiny telescope that he knew were not comets. Although he never found a comet, he left us a catalogue of 110 bright objects in our night sky – nebulae (clouds of dust and gas from which stars form), star clusters both open and globular and galaxies. This photo shows quite a few of these Messier objects, some of which I’ve labelled.
Messiers 6,7 and 8 are all open clusters of stars and associated nebulae from which they were born. These clusters are relatively young and consist of hundreds to thousands of stars. Messier 22 is a globular cluster. In our galaxies, the stars in these clusters are extremely old and are gravitationally bound in very dense clusters that may include millions of stars packed into a mere 70 light years (the nearest star to our sun is 4 light years away).
All of these objects are visible with a good pair of binoculars. Messier 22 looks like a fuzzy ball in binoculars, but resolves into myriad stars with a medium sized telescope (10″ diameter)
Whilst I was taking photos for this image, I was joined by a curious Barn Owl that took up a position on one of the dead trees I was photographing. I think it wondered what the strange lights were all about. Alas, I had left my bird photography lens and flash at home. So it’s a wide-angled shot of a motion blurred owl with galaxy backdrop.
Looking to the south, two more galaxies float above the Moolort plains – the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds.
The Large Magellanic Cloud is a distorted barred spiral that we view from above. You can see the central bar sloping from bottom left to top right and surrounding it the spirals that have been disrupted by the gravity of the Milky Way. the bright star-like object to the top right of the bar is actually the largest star forming region in our group of galaxies 30 Dorado or NGC 2070. It contains 70+ massive stars up to 300 times the mass of our sun. The Large Magellanic Cloud is 150,000 light years away and is about 1/10 the size of the Milky Way. The light you see from it left 150,000 years ago.
The Small Magellanic Cloud is about 200,000 light years away and weighs in at about 7 billion suns.