Globular clusters, those vast ‘cities of stars’ that orbit our galaxy, get a certain amount of traction in SETI circles because of their age, dating back as they do to the earliest days of the Milky Way. But as Henry Cordova explains below, they’re a less promising target in many ways than the younger, looser open clusters which are often home to star formation. Because it turns out that there are a number of open clusters that likewise show considerable age. A Centauri Dreams regular, Henry is a retired map maker and geographer now living in southeastern Florida and an active amateur astronomer. Here he surveys the landscape and points to reasons why older open clusters are possible homes to life and technologies. Yet they’ve received relatively short shrift in the literature exploring SETI possibilities. Is it time for a new look at open clusters?

by Henry Cordova

If you’re looking for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence in the cosmos, whether it be radio signals or optical beacons or technological residues, doesn’t it make sense to observe an area of sky where large numbers of potential candidates (particularly stars) are concentrated? Galaxies, of course, are large concentrations of stars, but they are so remote that it is doubtful we would be able to detect any artifacts at those distances. Star clusters are concentrations of stars gathered together in a small area of the celestial sphere easily within the field of view of a telescope or radio antenna. These objects also have the advantage that all their members are at the same distance, and of the same age,

Ask any amateur astronomer; “How many kinds of star cluster are there?” and he will answer; “Two, Open Clusters (OCs) and Globular Clusters (GCs)”. The terms “Globular” and “Open” refer to both their general morphology as well as their appearance through the eyepiece. It’s important to keep in mind that both are collections of stars presumably born at the same time and place (and hence, from the same material) but they are nevertheless very different kinds of objects. There does not seem to be a clearly defined transitional or intermediate state between the two. One type does not evolve into the other. Incidentally, the term ‘Galactic Cluster’ is often encountered when researching this field. It is an obsolete term for an OC and should be abandoned. It is too easily misunderstood as meaning a ‘cluster of galaxies’ and can lead to confusion.

GCs are in fact globular. They are collections of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of stars forming spheroidal aggregates much more densely packed towards their centers. OCs are amorphous and irregular in shape, random clumps of several hundred to several thousand stars resembling clouds of buckshot flying through space. Their distribution throughout the galaxy is different as well. GCs orbit the galactic center in highly elliptical orbits scattered randomly through space. They are, for the most part, located at great distances from us. OCs, on the other hand, appear to be restricted to mostly circular orbits in the plane of the Milky Way. Due to the obscuring effects of interstellar dust in the plane of the galaxy, most are seen relatively near Earth. although they are scattered liberally throughout the spiral arms.

Image: The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has captured the best ever image of the globular cluster Messier 15, a gathering of very old stars that orbits the center of the Milky Way. This glittering cluster contains over 100 000 stars, and could also hide a rare type of black hole at its center. The cluster is located some 35 000 light-years away in the constellation of Pegasus (The Winged Horse). It is one of the oldest globular clusters known, with an age of around 12 billion years. Very hot blue stars and cooler golden stars are seen swarming together in this image, becoming more concentrated towards the cluster’s bright center. Messier 15 is also one of the densest globular clusters known, with most of its mass concentrated at its core. Credit: NASA, ESA.

Studies of both types of clusters in nearby galaxies confirm these patterns are general, not a consequence of our Milky Way’s history and architecture, but a feature of galactic structure everywhere. Other galaxies are surrounded by clouds of GCs, and swarms of OCs circle the disks of nearby spirals. It appears that the Milky Way hosts several hundred GCs and several thousand OCs. It is now clear that not only is the distribution and morphology of star clusters divided into two distinct classes but their populations are as well. OCs are often associated with clouds of gas and dust, and are sometimes active regions of star formation. Their stellar populations are often dominated by massive bright, hot stars evolving rapidly to an early death. GCs, on the other hand, are relatively dust and gas free, and the stars there are mostly fainter and cooler, but long-lived. Any massive stars in GCs evolved into supernovae, planetary nebulae or white dwarfs long ago.

It appears that the globulars are very old. They were created during the earliest stages of the galaxy’s evolution. Conditions must have been very different back then; indeed, globulars may be almost as old as the universe itself. GC stars formed during a time when the interstellar medium was predominantly hydrogen and helium and their spectra now reveal large concentrations of heavy elements (“metals”, in astrophysical jargon). The metals have been carried up from the stellar cores by convective processes late in the stars’ life. Any planets formed around this early generation of stars would likely be gas giants, composed primarily of H and He—not the rocky Earth-type worlds we tend to associate with life.

Open Clusters, on the other hand, are relatively new objects. Many of them we can see are still in the process of formation, condensing from molecular clouds well enriched by metals from previous cycles of nucleogenesis and star formation. These clouds have been seeded by supernovae, solar winds and planetary nebulae with fusion products so that subsequent generations of stars will have the higher elements to incorporate in their own retinue of planets.

Image; Some of our galaxy’s most massive, luminous stars burn 8,000 light-years away in the open cluster Trumpler 14. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Maíz Apellániz (Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia, Spain); Acknowledgment: N. Smith (University of Arizona).

Older OCs may have broken up due to galactic tidal stresses but new ones seem to be forming all the time, and there appears to be sufficient material in the galactic plane to ensure a continuous supply of new OCs for the foreseeable future. In general, GCs are extremely old and stable, but not chemically enriched enough to be suitable for life. OCs are young, several million years old, and they usually don’t survive long for life to evolve there. Any intelligent life would probably evolve after the cluster broke up and its stars dispersed. BUT…there are exceptions.

The most important parameter that determines a star’s history is its initial mass. All stars start off as gravitationally collapsing masses of gas, glowing from the release of gravitational potential energy. Eventually, temperatures and pressures in the stars’ cores rise to the point where nuclear fusion reactions start producing light and heat. This energy counteracts gravity and the star settles down to a long period of stability, the main sequence. The terminology arises from a line of stars in the color-magnitude diagram of a star cluster. Main sequence stars stay on this line until they run out of fuel and wander off the main sequence.

All stars follow the same evolutionary pattern, but where on the main sequence they wind up, and how long they stay there, depend on their initial mass. Massive stars evolve quickly, lighter ones tend to stay on the main sequence a long time. Our Sun has been a main sequence star for about 4.6 billion years, and it will remain on the main sequence for about another 5 billion years. When it runs out of nuclear fuel it will wander off the main sequence, getting brighter and cooler as it evolves.

All stars evolve in a similar way, but the amount of time they spend in that stable main sequence state is highly dependent on their mass at birth. Studying the point on the color-magnitude diagram of a cluster’s main sequence where stars start to “peel-off” from the MS allows astrophysicists to determine the age of the cluster. It is not necessary to know the absolute brightness, or distance, of the stars since, by definition, all the stars in a cluster are at the same distance. The color-magnitude (or Hertzprung-Russell) diagram is as important to astronomy as the periodic table is to chemistry. It allows us to visualize stellar evolution using a simple graphic model to interpret the data. It is one of the triumphs of 20th century science.

It is this ability to determine the age of a cluster that allows us to select a set of OCs that meet the criterion of great age needed for biological evolution to take place. Although open clusters tend to quickly lose their stars through gravitational interactions with molecular clouds in the disc of the galaxy, a surprising number seem to have survived long enough for biological, and possibly technologically advanced, species to evolve. Although less massive stars, such as main sequence red dwarfs, tend to be preferentially ejected from OCs due to gravitational tides, more massive F, G, and K stars are more likely to remain.

Sky Catalog 2000.0 (1) lists 32 OCs of ages greater than 1.0 Gyr. A more up-to-date reference, the Wikipedia entry (2), lists others. No doubt, a thorough search of the literature will reveal still more. A few of these OCs are comparable in age to the globulars. They are relics of an ancient time. But many others are comparable to our Sun in age (indeed, our own star, like many others, was born in an open cluster).

Regardless of the observing technique or wavelength utilized, an OC provides the opportunity to examine a large number of stars simultaneously, stars which have been pre-selected as being of a suitable age to support life or a technically advanced civilization. It will also be assured that, as members of an OC, all the stars sampled were formed in a metal-rich environment, and that any planets formed about those stars may be rocky or otherwise Earthlike.

If a technical civilization has arisen on any of those stars, it is possible that they have explored or colonized other stars in the cluster and we have the opportunity to eavesdrop on intra-cluster communications. And from the purely practical point of view, when acquiring scarce funding or telescope time for such a project, it will be possible to piggy-back a SETI program onto non-SETI cluster research. Other than SETI, there are very good reasons to study OCs. They provide a useful laboratory for investigations into stellar evolution.


1) Sky Catalog 2000.0, Vol II, Sky Publishing Corp, 1985.


Suggestions for Additional reading

1. H. Cordova, The SETI Potential of Open Star Clusters, SETIQuest, Vol I No 4, 1995

2. R. De La Fuente Marcos, C. De La Fuente Marcos, SETI in Star Clusters: A Theoretical Approach, Astrophysics and Space Science 284: 1087-1096, 2003

3. M.C. Turnbull, J.C. Tarter, Target Selection for SETI II: Tycho-2 Dwarfs, Old Open Clusters, And the Nearest 100 Stars, ApJ Supp. Series 149: 423-436, 2003