Okay. After a shamefully long hiatus, I’m back. Once again, I’m Jesse McGlown, veteran, a student at Troy University…proud father of two fine sons, happily married for almost as long as I’ve been a stargazer (a little over three decades for the former; over four in the case of the latter…).
My intent is to faithfully update this blog at least weekly. There’s a lot Up There, each night, and especially so this time of year (see below!). I’ll do my best to keep up with all of the “attractions” on display each evening.
Okay! Let’s get to it.
It’s late August, and we’re right smack in the middle of the Dog Days of Summer: heat, humidity (if, like me, you’re situated in the Deep South!), bugs, torrential afternoon thunderstorms, more heat, muggy conditions, etc…yet arguable the finest celestial show visible from Earth is in prime position, an hour after sunset, facing the southern horizon. The constellations of Scorpio and Sagittarius are well placed, prominently on display to our South. These two constellations play host to the very center of our Milky Way galaxy, as it weaves its way almost exactly between the the archer and the scorpion.
And these two Summer Denizens happen to host a LOT. We’re talking sensory overload! Where to begin?
Perhaps a great attraction for openers is the Lagoon Nebula (its Messier Object designator is M8). It couldn’t be easier to locate, as it’s the only object visible to the unaided eye…if you can see the “teapot” asterism of Sagittarius, the bright nebula seems to be a, well, nebulous patch, almost like the “steam” emanating from the “spout”. Even a modest telescope reveals this object to be much, much more. Second only to the Orion Nebula, the Lagoon Nebula warrants some serious scrutiny…upon first glance, it seems to be comprised of two major components: the hazy nebulosity itself, complemented by a nice, contrasting open cluster of razor-sharp stars opposite the “cloud”. If you have the luxury of a wide, two-degree field of view, your telescopic vista will also encompass the neighboring Trifid Nebula (M20), heading a beautiful arc of a half-dozen stars.
Let’s focus on the Lagoon for the moment. Upon switching to a higher magnification eyepiece, more detail begins to bloom…you can actually see a couple of stars seemingly imbedded in the nebulosity. This is an actual “stellar nursery”, where new stars are being formed: unfathomably distant, and indescribably enormous! That “cloud” you’re taking in spans roughly forty light years across (the amount of time it would take, traveling at approximately 186,000 miles per second, from one side of the nebula to the other…just a cosmic “nature hike”, really).
Venturing beyond the Lagoon, we’ll move up a few degrees, to a gorgeous open cluster, M22, just to the left and slightly above the “steam”. M22 doesn’t have a proper nickname, but it should: it’s an unspeakably beautiful ball of tightly packed stars. In reality these guys are typically a light-year apart from one another. Try to imagine what an extraterrestrial night sky would look like, from a planet orbiting one of those distant suns. Think of the brightest two, maybe three, stars you’ve ever seen in a night sky, then imagine a hundred of them out at the same time. It wouldn’t be dark. Just a constant twilight.
Now shift your scope a few degrees left of that cosmic jewel, and you’ll likely stumble into the field of M24…and “field” is an appropriate descriptor, because this attraction is a literal field of stars resembling a black velvet carpet sprinkled with diamonds. Just overwhelming!
Continue in the same direction, and the next one up is M17, a.k.a. the Swan Nebula (or also colloquially known as the “check mark” nebula, as that is what it resembles through a back yard amateur telescope).
Are we in Sensory Overload yet?
I never cease to be, return visit after visit. My chief frustration stems from the fact that there are SO many attractions in this rich region that I want to linger on each one…yet I feel compelled to constantly jump from one to the next!