Have You Seen The Cowboy In The Double Cluster?

Meet the Double Cluster, home of the cowboy. One the left is NGC 884, on the right, NGC 869. The cowboy figure is formed of stars in the center of NGC 869. If you rotate the photo a quarter turn to the right, you’ll see him standing up. The pair of star clusters sits about 5° below the left side of Cassiopeia. Credit: Frank Barrett

I spent the past weekend in the rolling hills 50 miles north of Columbus, Ohio as a guest of the Richland Astronomical Society. A great group of people who know just how to make you feel at home, they run the Warren Rupp Observatory which houses a 36-inch reflecting telescope. That’s big! The views were incredible both Friday and Saturday nights: we saw the moons of Uranus, colors in the Orion Nebula and half a dozen other amazing sights that left impressions for a lifetime.

This map shows the sky facing north around 8:30 p.m. in late September. The Double cluster lies below the end of Cassiopeia. Credit: Stellarium

But there were other things, too. Little stuff you learn when hanging out with a different group of people. Saturday night, club member Mike Romine asked Cadence, a young participant, if she’d like to see the “cowboy” in the Double Cluster. The Double Cluster is a pair of rich star clusters in Perseus just below the W of Cassiopeia that you can see with your naked eye on a reasonably dark night. They look like a patch of fuzz, but any pair of binoculars will show them as two separate, small clouds shot through with faint stars.

Here’s a 300mm telephoto lens shot of the cowboy. Credit: Mike Romine

Views through a telescope are much better with hundreds of stars popping out, including a few cherry red ones. Some star clusters get nicknames based on their shapes such as the “ET” cluster or Wild Duck cluster and so on. I knew that within one of the clusters, NGC 869, there was a little curl of stars sometimes called the wedding ring, but I’d never heard of a cowboy. Cadence took a look, but I think she thought Mike was pulling her leg, so she couldn’t find the cowboy despite his excellent direction. I asked if I might try. With Mike’s help, it snapped into view in seconds. It was so obvious, I couldn’t believe I’d never noticed it before. Then, as soon as I saw it, Cadence returned and nailed it, too.

Here’s the cowboy as I remember it from the weekend. I’ll bet you can find it, too. Created with SkyMap

That’s why I’m sharing it with you. Use the map and photo to help you find the Double Cluster in your telescope, a great sight any night even without cowboys and wedding rings. Then focus your attention on NGC 869, the one with the little horseshoe-shaped arc of stars near its center. That’s the cowboy’s hat. From there, you can use the diagram to trace the rest of the dude.

Making patterns in the stars is something our species been doing since we first looked up. When it comes to finding telescopic figures, feel free to continue the tradition in 2017 and beyond. Thanks, Mike 😉