The diagram above shows the night sky at viewing time. Jupiter is brilliant in the south-east. Further to the north can be found the constellation Lyra which is easily identified by using the bright star Vega, which is one of the brightest in the sky.
In Lyra, the name of which is derived from the lyre, a stringed musical instrument well known for its use in classical antiquity and later, can be found M56, a rather loose globular cluster at a distance of approximately 32,900 light-years, with a diameter of about 85 light years.
A globular cluster is a spherical collection of stars that orbits a galactic core as a satellite. Globular clusters are very tightly bound by gravity, which gives them their spherical shapes and relatively high stellar densities toward their centers. The name of this category of star cluster is derived from the Latin globulus—a small sphere. A globular cluster is sometimes known more simply as a globular.
Globular clusters, which are found in the halo of a galaxy, contain considerably more stars and are much older than the less dense galactic, or open clusters, which are found in the disk. Globular clusters are fairly common; there are about 158 currently known globular clusters in the Milky Way, with perhaps 10 to 20 more still undiscovered. Large galaxies can have more: Andromeda, for instance, may have as many as 500. Some giant elliptical galaxies, such as M87, may have as many as 10,000 globular clusters. These globular clusters orbit the galaxy out to large radii, 40 kilo parsecs (approximately 131,000 light-years) or more.
Although it appears that globular clusters contain some of the first stars to be produced in the galaxy, their origins and their role in galactic evolution are still unclear.
The first globular cluster discovered was M22 in 1665 by Abraham Ihle, a German amateur astronomer. However, given the small aperture of early telescopes, individual stars within a globular cluster were not resolved until Charles Messier observed M4
Beginning in 1914, Harlow Shapley began a series of studies of
globular clusters, published in about 40 scientific papers. He examined the cepheid variables in the clusters and would use their period–luminosity relationship for distance estimates.
Of the globular clusters within our Milky Way, the majorities are found in the vicinity of the galactic core, and the large majorities lie on the side of the celestial sky centered on the core.
In 1918 this strongly asymmetrical distribution was used by Harlow Shapley to make a determination of the overall dimensions of the galaxy. By assuming a roughly spherical distribution of globular clusters around the galaxy's center, he used the positions of the clusters to estimate the position of the sun relative to the galactic center. While his distance estimate was significantly in error, it did demonstrate that the dimensions of the galaxy were much greater than had been previously thought. His error was due to the fact that dust in the Milky Way diminished the amount of light from a globular cluster that reached the earth, thus making it appear farther away. Shapley's estimate was, however, within the same order of magnitude of the currently accepted value.
Shapley's measurements also indicated that the Sun was relatively far from the center of the galaxy, contrary to what had previously been inferred from the apparently nearly even distribution of ordinary stars. In reality, ordinary stars lie within the galaxy's disk and are thus often obscured by gas and dust, whereas globular clusters lie outside the disk and can be seen at much further distances.
Shapley was subsequently assisted in his studies of clusters by Henrietta Swope and Helen Battles Sawyer (later Hogg). In 1927–29, Harlow Shapley and Helen Sawyer began categorizing clusters according to the degree of concentration the system has toward the core. The most concentrated clusters were identified as Class I, with successively diminishing concentrations ranging to Class XII. This became known as the Shapley–Sawyer Concentration Class.
Globular clusters are generally composed of hundreds of thousands of low-metal, old stars. The types of stars found in a globular cluster are similar to those in the bulge of a spiral galaxy but confined to a volume of only a few cubic parsecs. They are free of gas and dust and it is presumed that all of the gas and dust was long ago turned into stars.
While globular clusters can contain a high density of stars (on average about 0.4 stars per cubic parsec, increasing to 100 or 1000 stars per cubic parsec in the core of the cluster), they are not thought to be favorable locations for the survival of planetary systems. Planetary orbits are dynamically unstable within the cores of dense clusters because of the perturbations of passing stars. A planet orbiting at 1 astronomical unit around a star that is within the core of a dense cluster such as 47 Tucanae would only survive on the order of 108 years
Globular clusters have a very high star density, and therefore close interactions and near-collisions of stars occur relatively often. Due to these chance encounters, some exotic classes of stars, such as blue stragglers, millisecond pulsars and low-mass X-ray binaries, are much more common in globular clusters. A blue straggler is formed from the merger of two stars, possibly as a result of an encounter with a binary system. The resulting star has a higher temperature than comparable stars in the cluster with the same luminosity, and thus differs from the main sequence stars formed at the beginning of the cluster
The ages of globular clusters place a bound on the age limit of the entire universe. This lower limit has been a significant constraint in cosmology. During the early 1990s, astronomers were faced with age estimates of globular clusters that appeared older than cosmological models would allow. However, better measurements of cosmological parameters through deep sky surveys and satellites such as COBE have resolved this issue as have computer models of stellar evolution that have different models of mixing.
Hopefully we will have some clear skies and be able to see some of these ancient star groups.