by Damond Benningfield

FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS McDONALD OBSERVATORY, AS HEARD ON KCBS RADIO WEEKDAYS @ 9:52 A.M., 7:35 P.M. & 2:52 A.M.

STARDATE 5/28/2014: For an 18th-century astronomer, the quickest way to fame and fortune was discovering comets — the big iceballs that grow long, beautiful tails when they come close to the Sun. But seen through the telescopes of the day, a comet that was still far from the Sun looked like nothing more than a faint, fuzzy star. And a lot of other astronomical objects had a similar appearance.

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To keep down the number of false alarms, French astronomer Charles Messier set out to catalog these comet-like objects. And 250 years ago this month, he made his first independent discovery: an object in the constellation Canes Venatici, the hunting dogs. It’s known today as M3 — the third object in Messier’s catalog.

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It’s a globular cluster — a dense ball of stars. Most estimates say it has about a half-million stars packed into a spherical region of space just 180 light-years across.

The cluster is part of our home galaxy, the Milky Way. But it’s not in the galaxy’s broad, thin disk. Instead, it’s about 30,000 light-years above the disk, in a region known as the halo. In fact, when you look at M3 you’re looking straight out of the disk and into the vast reaches of intergalactic space.

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M3 is high in the southeast this evening, well above the bright yellow-orange star Arcturus. It’s too faint to see with the eye alone. A small telescope begins to show its true nature — a massive cluster of stars high above the Milky Way.