Planet Talk

Lick Observatory

As a volunteer at the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, I am enabled to witness not only the best sunsets I have ever seen, but also a variety of objects in space.

“Evening with the Stars” is a public program in which participants are granted the ability to look through the 36-inch refractor telescope and the 40-inch reflector telescope at the Lick Observatory. Along with this, visitors listen to fascinating history and scientific talks given by noteworthy professors and astronomers.

Last Friday, on my volunteer shift at Lick, I worked at the 36-inch refractor, which was showing globular clusters to the public.

Globular clusters are bound groups of plenty of stars all in one place. They can be found in any type of galaxy and are stable and tightly held by gravity. These spheroidal conglomerations of stars can contain anywhere from tens of thousands to several million stars. The concentration of stars in a globular cluster increases towards the center.

The particular cluster I witnessed was M3, also known as Messier 3. M3 is a globular cluster of stars in the northern constellation of Canes Venatici. This cluster was discovered on May 3, 1764, and is unique because it was the first Messier object to be discovered by Charles Messier. Charles Messier was a French astronomer who published a catalog consisting of 110 nebulae and star clusters, which became known as the Messier objects. When Messier first observed M3, he mistook it for a starless nebula. William Herschel resolved this around twenty years later and made M3 one of the best-studied globular clusters. M3 has a large number of variable stars, which is unusual for a globular cluster. American astronomer Solon Irving Bailey began identifying these variable stars, and they have continued to be identified through 2004.

Made up of 500,000 stars, Messier 3 is one of the largest and brightest clusters. It is centered 32,600 light-years from Earth and is projected to be 11.4 billion years old.

With the changing state of our universe, I was only able to observe M3 for a short time until those managing the telescope at Lick had to switch to a different object. Fortunately, globular cluster M3 appears as an isolated object, making it easy to locate and observe with the naked eye!

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