It was well past midnight, and dawn wasn’t that far away. It was also freezing cold.
I was wearing heavy clothing, gloves, and had a blanket draped over my shoulders.
I looked up at the stars and traced the old constellations. I found the bear, followed the pointers to Polaris, and then followed other stars around. There was the big long “V” shape that marked the constellation of Andromeda. If I looked closely about half way down one side, I could see a misty pool of light. I was looking at the Andromeda Galaxy. It was so far away that the light I was seeing left it long before humans ever walked our world.
Not far away from Andromeda was Perseus. In ancient stories, he was the champion who saved the beautiful Andromeda from the Kraken. I recalled noting there was something called a “Globular Cluster” in it.
I’d seen photographs of them, but had never really looked at one through the scope. Since my observing program was finished, I decided to track one down.
My target for the night was M-15.
It’s called M-15 or Messier-15. In the 1700s, there was a Frenchman named Charles Messier. Charles hunted comets. Here’s how a comet hunter works. He stakes out patches of the sky and watches it night after night. As a comet comes in from the depths of space and gets closer to the sun, the warmth of the sun begins to melt ice on the comet. The ice vaporizes, catches the light, and helps to make an object visible that was once invisible.
The idea is to watch the comet as this process begins, far out. When this starts, the comet is usually beyond the orbit of Mars, and looks like nothing more than a fuzzy point of light.
Well, Messier in the course of his looking kept finding these fuzzy patches of light. They looked like comets, but weren’t. They didn’t move, stayed constant, and as far as he was concerned, they were nothing but background noise. So to keep from constantly finding these things, and thinking they might be comets, he began to catalog them.
One of these fuzzy patches he found and posted was the object I wanted to hunt down. Interestingly, he did note a couple of objects we don’t seem to be able to locate. It’s possible he stumbled across a couple of comets, charted them, and just kept going.
But I had an advantage Charles didn’t. I had the Norton Star Atlas, a book that held the coordinates of thousands of deep space objects, to include the things he’d found.
I hunted down the right ascension and declination of M-15 in the book. I then swung the telescope around to the patch of the sky where it hid. The telescope was large and powerful which meant the object should be bright in my field of view. But I’d use low power eyepiece to track it down. Once I’d found it, I’d go to high power.
So shivering, I double checked everything, and then looked through the eyepiece. Nothing but stars. I knew I was close, but I’d have to swing the telescope right and left, up and down a little and hope it would drift into my field of view.
Going right gave me nothing. I went left, and suddenly I felt my breath catch in my throat. I forgot the finger numbing cold, and just stared.
A bright ball of stars looking for all the world like some incredible toy had drifted into view. It looked unreal, and would have grabbed the eye of any traveler through the heavens. M-15 is by no means the most spectacular globular cluster in the sky, but its haunting beauty shimmered across the light years to catch my eye and breath.
I remember saying that “If God made Christmas ornaments, this is what one would look like.” It hung very well in the celestial night.
Globular clusters are gravitationally bound balls of thousands of stars. Large galaxies seem to have hundreds of them and they contain some of the oldest stars in the universe. They circle the center of the galaxy like great star cities. They’re generally thought to be among the oldest structures in galaxies. Unlike the majority of the stars that circle in the plain of the galaxy, a globular cluster pursues its own path around the galactic center. Often times their orbit takes them up and out of the galactic plane. So if you were on a world on the outskirts of one of these mighty systems, you’d have one heck of a view.
Assuming you stayed in orbit around a star long enough to see the view that is. The stars are often times separated by a light year or less, and it’s possible that planets are being stolen by passing stars time and again. It must be a very chaotic place to be within one. There would be no such thing as night since most of the stars would shine in the sky as bright as the Moon.
One of the interesting facts of globular clusters is that there are very few if any new stars being born there. They used the material that stars are made from long ago and all that’s left is the old stars, most of which date back to when our Galaxy was coming together.
M-15 has one thing that seems to make it unique. Like our Milky Way Galaxy (indeed, every Galaxy seems to have one), there’s a massive black hole in the center about which every star in the cluster orbits. M-15 has one, and so far we haven’t found any in other globular clusters. It might be that M-15 is what’s left of a small galaxy our own galaxy engulfed in ages past.
But as I looked, all I could do was be amazed at it’s sheer beauty, and say, “You sure make some beautiful things, Lord!”