Week of July 8-14, 2018
As many of us stargazers in the Earth's Northern Hemisphere are sweltering under brutal summertime temperatures, it's hard to imagine that cooler weather will ever arrive. This is especially true here at my desert home in Borrego Springs, California, where I can expect daytime highs to hover above or near 110 degrees F for a couple more months.
The seasons will change, of course, and cooler weather will eventually be on its way. Until that happens, however, most of us have our winter clothing tucked out of sight for the summer. If you have the same luck as I have, I'm guessing you always seem to find fewer hangers than pieces of clothing you need to hang.
Where these things go is anyone's guess. But Mother Nature seems to offer a solution in the heavens. It's called the Coat Hanger, and it's one of the prettiest star groupings visible this time of year.
To find it, go outdoors after dark and locate the Summer Triangle, outlined by the three brightest stars midway up in the eastern sky shortly after dark: Vega, Altair and Deneb. Vega is the brightest of the three. Below it and to its southeast lies Altair. And to its northeast lies Deneb, the faintest of the trio.
Along the triangle's southwestern side — about one-third of the way from Altair to Vega — you might spot a hazy region of light if the sky is dark and your vision is good. This unusual spot was described some 1,054 years ago by the Persian astronomer Al Sufi in his "Book of Fixed Stars." Of course, without the benefit of optical aid, Al Sufi didn't know exactly what he was seeing except that it appeared as a fuzzy patch of light on the western edge of the Milky Way.
Today things are much different. Even the cheapest binoculars aimed in this direction will offer you quite a visual treat. Here you'll see 10 faint stars that outline a perfect shape of a tiny sideways coat hanger, a straight line of six with a hook of four on one side.
Of course, stars are distributed randomly throughout space, and the figure we see is simply the result of the human mind's attempt to make order out of this randomness. In fact, look at any area of stars in the sky and, given enough time and imagination, you will almost always be able to devise recognizable figures that we call asterisms.
The Coat Hanger, also known to astronomers as Brocchi's Cluster or, more formally, Collinder 399, is probably not a star cluster at all. It was in the 1970s and 1980s that astronomers began to suspect that many of its stars might be moving together — as if part of a stellar family.
Today, however, thanks to observations by the European Space Agency Hipparcos satellite, it appears that the stars of the Coat Hanger may be separated by hundreds of light years and drifting through space in arbitrary directions and speeds. In other words, they may not be part of a cluster after all.
Cluster or not, this is one cool sight on these warm summer nights!
Visit Dennis Mammana at www.dennismammana.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.