Cosmic Coathanger

By Phil Plait | December 23, 2008 5:00 pm

Today’s Astronomy Picture of the Day has one of my favorite asterisms in the whole sky: the Coat Hanger Cluster, aka Brocchi’s Cluster or Collinder 399. The image they posted is gorgeous, but copyrighted, so go there to see the nice high-res version. But to give you a low-res idea, here’s a shot that’s on Wikipedia:

Coat Hanger cluster, aka Brocchi’s cluster, aka Collinder 399
What’s your hangup?

I love this object, because – let’s face it — it’s a coat hanger! It also holds a special place for me because I spotted it by accident when I was but a lad and using my telescope to sweep the summer skies. I remember looking through the finder ‘scope, which had a wide-ish field of view, and suddenly a clump of brighter stars moved past my sight. I maneuvered the lumbering ‘scope back a little bit, and there it was. I laughed and laughed; it was a perfect coat hanger in the sky! The stars making it up are a bit brighter than the background stars, and the asterism (a collection of unrelated stars making a pattern) was so obvious and so perfect I couldn’t believe it.

This was before the internet, so I wasn’t able to go online and look it up. I sometimes wonder what it’s like to be an amateur astronomer just starting out now, being able to sit and within seconds find information on almost anything you’re likely to see floating among the constellations. And now, of course, even small telescopes are computerized, so you can type in a name and whizzzzzz! The ‘scope will slew right over to the object. That’s very cool, and quite a time saver (no small consideration when it’s cold).

But it also means that someone today might miss out on the Coat Hanger, and that would be too bad. There are dozens, hundreds, of such things in the sky, and I can’t possibly write about all of them. But if you own a small telescope, I think the very best thing you can do is dress warmly, go outside, and just have fun. You have a magnificent tool in your hands that people centuries ago would have cheerfully gone to war over, and all you have to do is go outside.

So go outside. Look up. See what there is to see.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (38)

  1. eigenvector

    Phil, a little off-topic, but can you summarize today’s Vatican announcement about Galileo?

    Thanks,

    Jim

  2. As an amateur astronomer myself, I am glad to see this post. Thanks, Phil. ;)

    It is a great time for backyard astronomy, as the cold weather does make for some very clear viewing. Over the past few days I’ve been dressing in 4-5 layers just to be able to stand the cold nights for an hour or so but the view is awesome right now, even with a small 6″ reflector like mine.

  3. *sighs sadly at gorgeous telescopes in window of Australian Geographic*

  4. Dounk

    Phil you seem to be very strongly pareidolia-prone for house accessories… I guess that’s as good a subject as any other one!

  5. Jim

    Visible to the naked eye in a dark sky and wonderful in binoculars. Like you Phil, I recall finding this “patch” of light on a summer long ago. What a thrill it was to find. I keep my eyes and camera on this object. A photo I took of this area this past summer. The cluster is on the right side of the frame. Looks nice with the star clouds next to it.

    http://tinyurl.com/99b7o4

  6. Naomi, by golly you’re describing me yesterday. Nice aren’t they.

  7. hhEb09'1

    I too discovered the coathanger accidentally.

    eigenvector, which vatican announcement today about galileo?

    Hey, it looks like the Pope’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano published on Monday an article on the possibility of life on other planets

  8. Kaleberg

    That bunch of stars doesn’t look at all like a coat hanger. I even went to my closet and took out a coat hanger to check. You know, just in case I had forgotten what a coat hanger looked like. In any case, it doesn’t look like a bunch of stars.

    I guess it takes a lot more visual skill than I have to be an astronomer.

  9. Tom

    @Kaleberg:

    It looks like one of the WOODEN coathangers, not one of the cheap wire ones.

    Clear Skies!

  10. Daniel

    All i see is a triangular UFO ;)

  11. Ah, yes, the pope. He also issued a statement equating saving gays to saving the rainforests. More papal bull if you ask me…
    (Click on my name to see the story)

  12. llewelly

    It doesn’t look like a coat hanger at all to me. I see the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child.

  13. kuhnigget

    “I sometimes wonder what it’s like to be an amateur astronomer just starting out now, being able to sit and within seconds find information on almost anything you’re likely to see floating among the constellations.

    Oh, doctor, doctor, doctor…. Three words: Burnham’s Celestial Handbook!

    Geez, did people do anything before the innertoob?

  14. Crudely Wrott

    But if you own a small telescope, I think the very best thing you can do is dress warmly, go outside, and just have fun. You have a magnificent tool in your hands that people centuries ago would have cheerfully gone to war over, and all you have to do is go outside.

    I was given one forty-some years ago, a 40X Newtonian (don’t recall diameter, do recall eyepiece magnification).

    I saw the mountains on the Moon all by myself. I watched Mars quiver and waver through a humid summer sky. And I first saw the Orion Nebula on a frigid winter night when Eisenhower was in office and there were whispers everywhere about going way up into the sky.

    It was fun doing it then and it is at least as much fun remembering those moments now. Thanks for the reminder.

  15. Jack Mitcham

    It’s a streetlight.

  16. bassmanpete

    When I was about 5 or 6 (1950) my mum & dad pointed out to me what they called The Cow. The forehead is the the belt of Orion, the foreleg is the sword, the shoulder is (I think) Eta Orionis, the rump Beta Eridanus, and the rear foot is Rigel. I can never see The Mighty Hunter up there but I can always see The Cow!

  17. Thomas Siefert

    All I see is the Sydney Harbour Bridge :-)

  18. Trocisp

    I don’t see it.

  19. Michelle

    Yet another case of pareidolia. This time it’s not Jesus, but I STILL don’t see it. :P

  20. It’s a clear signal from our so-loved CoatHanger GOD!! YAY!

  21. J. D. Mack

    I’m afraid I don’t see it either. Can someone post the picture with lines connecting the dots?

  22. anonentity

    I don’t see it either. Also, the pic is inverted from the one in the Wikipedia link.

  23. Hey kuhnigget! I recall many fun hours collating the pre-Dover looseleaf version of Burnham. And one of the three kids in the photo on the dedication page is me. Also possibly I’m one of the silhouettes looking at the Pleiades in the frontispiece of Vol 2.

    Glad to hear someone still uses it. Too bad Bob never made much money from it. (Dover doesn’t do royalties, just one-time payments.)

    As for the people not seeing the coathanger, click through to the APOD image. It’s much clearer there.

  24. Mike Rondeau

    I sometimes use the scope manually and scan the sky.I would be lost with out the interwebs though. I am always looking up satellites on the Heavens above web site. I think maybe the Ufologists should use the site as well :)

  25. John Keller

    I think the coat hanger looks best through binoculars

  26. @jack mitcham: I think you’re lost. We left the streetlight on fark.

    Click my name for model coathanger if you can’t see it.

  27. Philly

    This is indeed a great conglomeration of stars. It’s a matter of perspective though: if you turn it upside down, it looks just like a hat

  28. Philly

    My apologies, it looks like a hat to me, not upside-down. I can also see the coathanger. :P

  29. kuhnigget

    @ Nicolás:

    It’s a clear signal from our so-loved CoatHanger GOD!! YAY!

    Don’t you mean the Great Goddess Joan Crawford? “No wire hangers!” (Explanations available, for the cinematically challenged.)

    @ Johnny:

    That’s cool! I still use all three editions. The finder charts are great! As I recall, it took me about a year to save up my paper route money to buy all three volumes.

  30. Andy Beaton

    Burnham’s Handbook was one of the best resources ever created for amateur astronomers. His story truly is tragic. He deserved eternal fame for his work.

  31. Yep, Bob Burnham’s tale is a sad one. I sent him some coin at one point, but lost track of him after that. I found out later he was living in Balboa Park in San Diego when he died. I think at some point he kind of just gave up trying.

    The really sad part is all the time he spent putting together slide shows with narration and music (with an actual slide projector, and an 8-track player (that’s those old cartridges, not an 8-track studio machine!)) to play for the visitors at Lowell, all while being actively discouraged in this endeavor by his boss. And then, only a few years after he was laid off, the new observatory director decided (correctly, IMO) to emphasize outreach, even building a shiny new visitor center. A few years earlier and Burnham would have been just the guy to run it.

    Hey Alanis, that‘s irony.

  32. kuhnigget

    @ Johnny V:

    Wow, I never knew that about Burnham. How sad. I grew up poring over those books. My copies are so dog-eared and marked up you can hardly read the text. But I wouldn’t part with them for anything.

    Wow. Just…lower case wow.

  33. Kristin C

    Wow! Asterism. I learn new words every day. (I studied astrophysics and I never heard of it called that!)

  34. AJ

    “That bunch of stars doesn’t look at all like a coat hanger. I even went to my closet and took out a coat hanger to check. You know, just in case I had forgotten what a coat hanger looked like. In any case, it doesn’t look like a bunch of stars.

    I guess it takes a lot more visual skill than I have to be an astronomer.”

    Yeah, me too… I can vaguely see a hook fo the hanger, but then it’s just more or less a straight-line bar across under it.

    What kind of weird coathangers are you using, Phil? :-D

  35. Scott Smith

    looks more like a recumbent lion to me. a miniature version of Leo ;-)

  36. John Phillips, FCD

    AJ, think of a wooden coat hanger with a wire hook, i.e. a straight or slightly curved piece of wood ~300mm x ~15mm x ~6mm. Or padded coat hangers which are often just a straight wooden bar with padding. I have a few of each in my wardrobe, mind, I live in that strange land on the other side of the Atlantic, the one who’s language the US insists on mangling :) .

    Happy monkey everyone.

  37. icemith

    Hi there Thomas Siefert,

    Yes if were home, I’d be able to see the Sydney Harbour Bridge too. But I’m in Perth , Western Australia with family. But you know what? I can still remember it after three days away, and I concur that the star cluster DOES remind me of a coat hanger. Easily. And we still hear our bridge referred to as a coat hanger. Doesn’t worry me a bit either.

    Ivan.

  38. Buzz Parsec

    1) I always find it hard to see things properly in any photograph of an astronomical object. I’ve come to think this is due to images having a greatly compressed dynamic range compared to eyeballs. The stars comprising the coat hanger really look distinctively brighter IRL compared to the background stars and it stands out much more clearly when viewed in binoculars. (BTW, astronomers usually worked off negatives, at least before everything went digital, and I found those much easier to see. However, virtually everything released to the public or printed in popular books were positive images, because that’s what everyone expects.)

    2) I for one welcome our new cosmic coat hanger overlords!

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »