Charting the course of celestial bodies

The galaxy NGC 3156 was captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Sharples, S. Kaviraj, W. Keel

This is like a dream Hubble Space Telescope Image of the week features a galaxy called NGC 3156. It is a lenticular galaxy, meaning it falls somewhere between an elliptical and a spiral galaxy. It is about 73 million light-years from Earth, in the small equatorial constellation Sextons.

Historical Significance of Sextons

Sextons is a small constellation in the Hercules constellation. It is a constellation with an astronomical theme, named after an instrument called a sextant. Sextants are often considered navigational instruments invented in the 18th century. However, the sextant as an astronomical instrument has been around for much longer than that: Islamic scholars developed astronomical sextants hundreds of years earlier to measure angles in the sky.

Uluk Beg Laboratory in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Uluk Beg Laboratory in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Built by the Timurid astronomer Uluk Beg. Credit: ESA

A particularly striking example A colossal sextant with a circumference of 36 meters built by Uluk Beg of the Timurid dynasty in the fifteenth century, located in Samarkand, present-day Uzbekistan. These early sextants may have been a development of the quadrant, a measuring device proposed by Ptolemy. A sextant, as the name suggests, is one-sixth of a circle, roughly the shape of the constellations.

Modern Astronomy and NGC 3156

Sextants are no longer in use in modern astronomy, having been replaced by instruments capable of measuring the positions of stars and astronomical objects with greater precision and accuracy. NGC 3156 has been studied in many ways other than determining its precise position – from its globular clusters, to its relatively recent star formation, to stars being destroyed by the supermassive black hole at its center.

Sextant Navigational Tool

A sextant is a navigational instrument used to measure the angle between a celestial object and the horizon to help determine one’s latitude during sea and aerial navigation.

More about Sextants

A sextant is a navigational instrument primarily used to measure the angle between a celestial object and the horizon to aid in sea and aerial navigation. Shaped like one-sixth of a circle, this precision instrument uses a small telescope and reflective mirrors. By observing the altitude of the stars, sun, or moon, mariners and pilots can determine their latitude and sometimes their longitude relative to the surface of the earth. Historically, the sextant has been a tool for explorers and navigators, helping them accurately chart their courses across vast, unmarked expanses of sea or air.

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