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September 14, 2011

Some constellations have split identities. Cygnus, for example, is known as both the swan and the Northern Cross. Others, such as Hercules, have split personalities; madness drove him to kill his family, then he spent years trying to atone by carrying out his famous 12 labors. But one constellation is just split: Serpens, the serpent, has two halves, separated by the serpent-bearer, Ophiuchus.

As night falls, the serpent stretches from due south to due west. It’s not much to look at, though — you need pretty dark skies to see many of its stars.

Binoculars or a telescope reveal a couple of impressive objects, though.

One is a globular star cluster known as M5, which looks like a fuzzy blob of light. It’s a tightly packed ball of stars about 25,000 light-years away. The stars are all quite old — as old as the Milky Way galaxy itself. And there are lots of them — at least a hundred thousand, and perhaps hundreds of thousands more.

The other object is a smaller star cluster and a surrounding nebula known as M16. It contains dozens of young stars, surrounded by the nebula of gas and dust that gave them birth, and that is still giving birth to more stars. The bright gas and dark dust form a pattern that gives the nebula a second name: the Eagle Nebula. But that same pattern is also responsible for yet another name, this one thanks to one of the most famous pictures from Hubble Space Telescope: the Pillars of Creation.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011


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