By Jim Haklar
A long time ago the Rolling Stones sang that you can’t always get what you want, but if you try you might get what you need. Although I’m not a Stones fan (I prefer the Beatles), I found their song to ring true one morning at 5 a.m. I was outside in 35-degree weather (with only the deer for company) trying to take a picture of Comet Lovejoy.
No to be confused with Almond Joy, Comet Lovejoy was discovered by an Australian amateur astronomer named Terry Lovejoy. As I write this blog the comet can be found in the early morning sky. I wanted to take a picture of the comet but just couldn’t find it through my telescope. But all was not lost. Instead of the comet, I took some pictures of a star cluster called Messier 44 (or M44 for short).
There are two kinds of star clusters: open clusters and globular clusters. Open clusters can contain hundreds of stars, and the clusters have irregular shapes. Globular clusters can contain thousands of stars and in a telescope the clusters look like little fuzzy balls or globules.
M44 is an open star cluster and can be seen without a telescope. Also known as the Beehive Cluster, it is in the constellation of Cancer and light from the stars in the cluster takes about 580 years to reach us. The cluster is so wide that light takes 10 years to travel from one end of the cluster to the other.
So while I didn’t come home with a picture of the comet, I did bring back something just as nice: an image of a celestial beehive. To further paraphrase the Stones, I was as happy as “Jumping Jack Flash!”
About the Author: Jim is an environmental engineer at EPA’s Edison, New Jersey Environmental Center. In his 28 years with the Agency he has worked in a variety of programs including Superfund, Water Management, Public Affairs, and Toxic Substances. He has been an amateur astronomer since he was a teenager, and can often be found after work in the back of the Edison facility with his telescope.