Everybody’s seen photographs of this one, but that’s no reason to not show it again: it’s the Cat’s Eye Nebula, otherwise known as NGC 6543, (or “Caldwell 6″ in Patrick Moore’s list of more challenging, non-Messier objects), an expanding cloud of mostly hydrogen and helium, discovered on February 15th 1786 by William Herschel.
The nebula is one of the most complex we know of, and was formed around 1,000 years ago when the star (or stars – it may be a binary system) at its centre lost its outer shell. That star, smaller than the Sun but approximately 10,000 times as luminous, is what is responsible for the nebula being lit up like a Christmas tree.
NGC 6543 is around 3,000 light years away and has an observed density of about 5,000 particles per cubic cm.
Launched on February 15th 1973 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Prognoz 3‘s purpose was to study solar flares, and help increase our understanding of how the Sun’s activity affects the Earth’s magnetosphere. Prognoz launches took place at an impressive rate. Getting the entire fleet of 10 satellites off the ground only took 54 weeks.
Asteroid 442 Eichsfeldia was discovered on February 15th, 1899, by Max Wolf and Arnold Schwassman. It’s a C-type main belt asteroid of approximately 65 km diameter.
The planetary nebula NGC 40, also known as the Bow Tie Nebula, was discovered by William Herschell on November 25,1788, using his 18.7 inch reflector. Formed about 4,500 years ago, it is located some 3,000 to 3,500 light years away in the constellation Cepheus (the king, husband of nearby queen Cassiopeia). The nebula measures about 1 light year across.
NGC 40 is also designated C2 (Caldwell 2), one of a list of 109 deep sky objects compiled by the famed amateur astronomer Sir Patrick Alfred Caldwell-Moore. The letter “C” was chosen by necessity, Charles Messier having already selfishly claimed Mr Moore’s more obvious choice, “M”.
A planetary nebula is the shell formed around a dying star that has thrown off its outer layers at the red giant stage of its evolution. In the image above, from the CHANDRA X-Ray Observatory, the blue areas are gases heated to several million degrees Celsius, with the red areas being at a relatively cool 10,000 degrees. Eventually, when the nebula has faded, all that will be left will be a small, dense white dwarf, possibly no bigger than Earth.
I apologise for choosing an image bearing no resemblance to a bow tie, but then Cepheus bears even less to a king. And if you have ever seen my attempts to tie a bow, you might actually see the similarity.