Collinder 399, aka the Coat Hanger Cluster. Credit: Anthony Ayiomamitis

Coathook to the stars

Contributed by
Jul 26, 2012

In the constellation of Vulpecula, the fox - located high in the sky this time of year for northern hemisphere observers - is a fun little asterism: a collection of stars formally known as Brocchi's Cluster, or Collinder 399. Greek astrophotographer Anthony Ayiomamitis took a grand picture of it just a few days ago that I have to share with you:

 

Collinder 399, aka the Coat Hanger Cluster. Credit: Anthony Ayiomamitis

Collinder 399, aka the Coat Hanger Cluster. Credit: Anthony Ayiomamitis

It's very pretty, isn't it? The asterism itself is composed of the ten or so brightest stars you see; the rest are background stars. It's most likely not a true cluster; that is, the stars may be at different distances and not physically associated with one another.

Still, this so happens to be one of my all-time favorite objects in the sky. Why? Because of the shape of the cluster: it really looks like a coathanger! If you don't see it, I drew lines between the stars in question in the image inset here.

Now you see it, right? Astronomy Picture of the Day featured a different shot of the Coathanger in 2008, too, which is worth a look.

This group of stars is pretty big - three times the width of the full Moon on the sky - and bright, making it really easy to spot with binoculars. In fact, when I was younger I stumbled on it myself by accident while scanning that part of the sky with my telescope. It was obviously shaped like a coathanger, and I was delighted to find out that's what everyone called it.

In fact, now that I think about it, it'll be very well placed for observing in September, making it a great target for folks coming to Science Getaways. That would be fun. But if you have clear skies this time of year, it's easy to find, about a third of the way from the bright star Altair to Vega, in the Summer Triangle. Give it a shot!