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July 24, 2014

A big, steaming teapot floats across the southern horizon on summer evenings: the constellation Sagittarius, the archer. To modern eyes, its brightest stars form a teapot, with the handle to the left and the spout to the right.

The pot looks like it’s steaming because it’s immersed in the Milky Way — the combined glow of millions of stars in the disk of our Milky Way galaxy. You need dark skies to see it; city lights overpower its subtle glow.

But if your skies are dark enough for you to see the Milky Way, then you can look for some of the most prominent star clusters and nebulae in all the night sky. That’s because Sagittarius marks the heart of the galaxy. When we look that way, we’re looking into the most heavily populated region of the galaxy, so there are lots of beautiful sights.

A few of these objects are visible to the unaided eye. But they’re faint and spread out, so they look like small puffs of cloud or smoke. Binoculars enhance the view, while small telescopes show much more detail.

One of these objects is a big cluster of geriatric stars. But other objects are at the opposite end of the stellar life cycle. They’re stellar nurseries — regions where clouds of gas and dust are collapsing to give birth to new stars.

Look for all of these beautiful objects floating above the teapot, which is low in the southeast in early evening, and due south around midnight.

We’ll have more about Sagittarius tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2007, 2014

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