Sand and Stars

Reticulum and Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman (1918–1988) Theoretical physicist
Richard Feynman (1918–1988) Theoretical physicist

29 Sep 2016

I was scratching around in Reticulum last night. It’s a lovely binocular constellation – small, compact and full of colourful stars. Yellow and orange stars mostly, with one or two red and blue stars, and a lovely field of isolated stars just east of Alpha Reticuli.

While I was lingering in it with the binos, enjoying the view with a nice cup of early-morning tea (it was around 2:30 am), I was thinking about Richard Feynman’s well-known bird-watching anecdote – and how immeasurably it has added to my observing pleasure:

“…the next Monday, when the fathers were all back at work, we kids were playing in a field. One kid says to me, “See that bird? What kind of bird is that?” I said, “I haven’t the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is.” He says, “It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn’t teach you anything!” But it was the opposite. He had already taught me: “See that bird?” he says. “It’s a Spencer’s warbler.” (I knew he didn’t know the real name.) “Well, in Italian, it’s a Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it’s a Bom da Peida. In Chinese, it’s a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese, it’s a Katano Tekeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing—that’s what counts.” (I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.)”

When it comes to observing, like Feynman’s birds, the rich observational history and current scientific knowledge of an object is what really brings an observation to life, and drives home how vast our universe is, how deep it is, how complex it is, and how utterly spectacular.

Reticulum is a case in point.

The friend’s way: It has NGC 1313, NGC 1559, Reticulum Globular Cluster, a double star and a variable star to log.


Feynman’s way: It has an intriguingly topsy-turvy starburst galaxy, a fascinating Syfert galaxy, a globular cluster that resides in another galaxy, an incredible Mira-type variable star, and for a squizz at the lunatic fringe, a double star infested with aliens.


10″ f/5 Dobs; magnifications of 90x, 144x and 208x 

NGC 1313 Starburst Galaxy 

RA 03 1813.5   Dec -66 30 26   Mag 8.7   Size 9.2 x 6.9

The Topsy-Turvy Galaxy NGC 1313*
 NGC 1313. Image credit Hubble/ESO

Nicknamed the Topsy Turvy galaxy because a starburst galaxy (one undergoing a period of furious star formation) as topsy turvy as it would usually result from a recent collision with a neighbouring galaxy, NGC 1313 mysteriously appears to be alone, a solitary extragalactic starburst vagrant; it isn’t part of a group, it has no neighbour. Other strange features include that its spiral arms are lopsided and gas globules are spread out widely around them. Its rotational axis is not at the center of the nuclear bar.

And its insides reveal even more mysteries. From the ESO news release that accompanied the photo: “…In the midst of the cosmic violence of the starburst regions lie two objects that emit large amounts of highly energetic X-rays – so-called ultra-luminous X-ray sources (ULX). Astronomers suspect that they might be black holes with masses of perhaps a few hundred times the mass of our Sun each, that formed as part of a binary star system. How such objects are created out of ordinary stars cannot be conclusively explained by current models. NGC 1313 is an altogether very intriguing target.” That it is.

It’s an impressive sight in my 10″ Dobs. Lying between a triangle of stars, it has a very unusual appearance, appearing as an irregular mist of light that envelops an irregular oval of light in a northeast by southwest direction. I couldn’t resolve the bar at all, but with averted vision I could see hazy evidence of its wide two-armed spiral design; the flimsy northwestern stubby area being noticeable fainter than the southeastern one.

NGC 1559 Seyfert Galaxy 

RA 04 17 37.5   Dec -62 46 59   Mag 10.7   Size 3.5′ x 2′

NGC 1559 obtained with the multi-mode FORS1 instrument on ESO's 8.2m VLT. Supernova SN 2005df is visible as the bright star just above the galaxy
Supernova SN 2005df is visible as the bright star just above NGC 1559. Image credit Hubble/ ESO

Seyfert galaxies are a type of active galaxy; they are spiral galaxies characterized by a bright nucleus that radiates strongly in the blue and in the ultraviolet. NGC 1559 is fairly small at one sixth the size of the Milky Way Galaxy. It contains a small bar, and has massive flocculent spiral arms with fabulous star clumps, and strong star formation. Its bar and disc are the source of very strong radio emissions. And like most galaxies, NGC 1559 probably contains a black hole in its centre.

Four supernovae have been recorded in this galaxy. Three of them were discovered by the extraordinary Australian amateur astronomer Robert Evans. Finding one is pretty rare. He holds the record for visual discoveries of supernovae – 42! He spotted and recognised the new 14th mag star in NGC 1559 using his 12-inch Newtonian reflector, and his prodigious memory for star fields. Unbelievably, he has committed to memory the fields of more than 1,000 galaxies and their environs down to magnitude 15. That allows him to check each field rapidly and systematically just by eye, observing from his backyard about 100 kilometers west of Sydney. The fourth supernova – a magnitude 14.7,  type IIP supernova, 2009ib – was discovered on the 6th August, 2009, by Pignata et al. at the CHilean Automatic Supernova sEarch (CHASE).

This galaxy appears moderately bright, a small smooth oval of light oriented roughly northeast to southwest with a very slightly raggedy periphery. A roughly 12 mag star is situated off the southwest end, and the southwestern tip itself, with averted vision, appears very slightly more defined than the northeaster tip. How on earth does Robert Evans do it?

Reticulum Globular Cluster

RA 04 36 11.4   Dec -58 51 47    Mag 14.25   Size 1.7′

DSS image
Reticulum Globular Cluster. DSS image

When initially discovered by Sérsic in 1974, it was thought to be a dwarf galaxy and a likely member of the Local Group. Later studies showed it to be a globular cluster, and it has often been included in lists as an outlying member of our Milky Way Galaxy’s crowd of globular clusters. However it has since been shown to be an outlying member of the Large Magellanic Cloud, essentially at the same distance as the main body of the LMC.

A vigilant search revealed nothing. I hadn’t expected it to, but had a good search anyway. After I was sure that I couldn’t see it, I didn’t linger – it’s all too easy to get lost, literally and figuratively in the Large Magellanic Cloud; so I trotted hastily back to my task in hand, and went off to see –

Zeta Reticuli Double Star

RA 03 18.3   Dec -62 30   Mag 01: 5.5 Mag 02: 5.2   Sep 310.0″   PA 216º

DSS image
Zeta Reticuli. DSS image

This binary system of Sun-like stars only 39.5 light years away is strangely famous because it was once identified as the home of the little grey-faced and black-eyed humanoids with Jimmy Durante noses who abducted Barney and Betty Hill on September 20, 1961, while they were rattling along in their car along an isolated rural road in the American state of New Hampshire. The aliens (who could speak English) took their victims to their spaceship, did nasty probing-type tests on them (always an alien abduction prerequisite!) and showed Betty their primitive star map consisting of some vague dots and lines that indicated their home star system – yup, Zeta Reticuli. (You have to laugh… the pilots of a highly sophisticated spaceship capable of traversing 40 light years of space, not only carrying such a useless star map, but showing it with some pride to an Earthling they had just probed!)

Carl Sagan debunked this idiotic nonsense in his usual elegant and erudite way, but I have to admit alien abductions and conspiracy theories make my teeth ache. Especially as ever since Zeta Reticule has appeared in popular culture as the quintessential location of extraterrestrial mystery.

In reality, Zeta Reticuli is a lovely wide pair of golden yellow suns that stand out beautifully against a sparse field of faint stars.  

R Reticuli Mira-type Variable Star

RA 04 33.2    Dec -63º01′   Mag 6.5   

DSS image
R Reticuli. DSS image

A gorgeous red star, and while it takes 278.3 days for it to go through it’s changes, they are very dramatic. This incredible star varies between a magnitude of 6.5 and 14. Now that’s variable!

Regardless of one’s observing philosophy and habits, Reticulum is always worth a little ramble among its stars for the sole reason that Nicolas Louis de Lacaille named these stars for the reticule crosshairs on his 8x spyglass which enabled him to measure the position of a mind-boggling 10,000 stars as faint as 8th magnitude in the southern skies, over an eleven month period during the years 1751-53 when he was at the Cape of Good Hope (now Cape Town).

Copyright © Susan Young 2016