A flock of celestial ducks take flight in a stunning new snapshot released on Wednesday, offering astronomers a lesson on how stars are made and sky-watchers a reminder of a fun viewing opportunity.
Using the keen digital eye of the 7.2-foot (2.2-meter) telescope at La Silla Observatory in Chile, astronomers have revealed the Wild Duck Cluster, one of the richest and most beautiful celestial objects in the sky.
Also known as Messier 11, the open star cluster is located some 6,000 light-years from Earth, in the southern constellation Scutum, the Shield.
The Wild Duck is one of the most compact of star clusters, packing about 3,000 stars into only a 20-light-year-wide space.
A Star Is Born
Open star clusters interest astronomers because all of their stellar members are born from the same cloud of gas and dust. Therefore, they share the same chemical makeup and age. But stars within clusters can have different weights, so they live very different lives. In a sense, they offer observers the best natural laboratory available to test out theories about star formation and evolution.
Open clusters such as M11 form in the spiral arms of galaxies all the time, but they tend to disband as individual stars fly away. The Wild Duck is thought to be about 250 million years old, and it’s expected that it will begin to disband in the next few million years.
See for Yourself
The Wild Duck name for the cluster was coined back in the 19th century, when the astronomers who first observed it through a telescope noticed that its brightest stars form an open triangle pattern in the sky, one that resembles ducks flying in formation.
The cluster is visible to the naked eye, seen as a fuzzy patch of light halfway up the southern evening sky as seen from mid-northern latitudes.
Look for the cluster straight above the giant teapot stellar pattern in the constellation Sagittarius, the Archer. On Wednesday, October 1, 2014, the quarter moon will lie 12 degrees below M11. This separation will be a bit more than the width of your fist held at an arm’s length.