Jimmy Westlake: The universe below
Our Milky Way is flat, like a pancake made of star batter. It’s a spinning disk of gas, dust and stars about 100,000 light years across but only about 3000 light years thick.
During the early evenings of late spring, we are positioned so that we can look straight up out of the top of our Milky Way pancake and into the intergalactic space that forms the rooftop of the sky.
Our constellation of Coma Berenices — Queen Berenices’ Hair — is seen in the direction of the north galactic pole. Six months later, during the late fall, we can gaze out of the bottom of the Milky Way’s pancake to see what lies beneath our galaxy.
The constellation that lies in the direction of the south galactic pole is a recent addition to the sky, being invented around the year 1750 by Nicholas de Lacaille (day-la-kay). He personally is responsible for inventing 15 of our 88 official constellations.
His constellation of l’Atelier du Sculpteur represents a sculptor’s studio or workshop. It is the only room that has been immortalized in the heavens. (Yeah – good luck finding a sculptor’s studio in those stars.)
Known today simply as Sculptor, the stars in this constellation are rather sparse and faint as we look straight down out of the glass floor of our galaxy and into the infinity of deep space beyond. What do we see out there beyond the stars of Sculptor?
For starters, we see another beautiful “milky way” out there, spinning in space — the Silver Dollar Galaxy, or NGC 253. It probably looks much the same to us as our Milky Way would look to any curious eyes gazing our way from that 10 million light years distance. It’s an easy target for binoculars or a small telescope on clear, dark, November nights.
Nearby, and in the same binocular field of view with the Silver Dollar Galaxy, is a galactic interloper that circles our own galaxy, an ancient cluster of stars named NGC 288 — NGC stands for the New General Catalog. A scant 29,000 light years away, NGC 288 contains some of the oldest stars in our galaxy, red giants that have been shining for as long as 12 billion years.
To locate Sculptor, look due south and close to the horizon around 7 p.m. in early December, just east (left) of the bright star Fomalhaut and south (below) of the bright star Deneb Kaitos. Then, hold on tight as you look down on the universe below.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Steamboat Springs Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper. Check out Jimmy’s new “2017 Cosmic Calendar” of sky events on his website at jwestlake.com. It features 12 of his best astro-photos and a day-by day listing of cool celestial events that you and your family can enjoy watching all year.
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