Swan Song


As I’ve alluded to in the previous post, if there’s a singular frustration with the Sagittarius/Scorpio region, it’s that of sheer sensory overload: there’s just so, SO much jam-packed into this celestial real estate that the casual observer cannot do justice to adequate time spent on each “attraction”! Add to that, the section of our galaxy which stretches up beyond the scorpion and the archer/teapot, into the constellations Cygnus (the swan), Lyra (the harp/shopping cart), and Aquila (just the Eagle)…”the hits just keep on coming”.

Not too many years ago, I finally figured out an approach that would keep me from getting frustrated with trying to take all of these showpieces in during one evening:

You can’t.

With Sagittarius and Scorpio now being in “prime position” shortly after dusk, they are on prominent display for about an hour, followed by taking a bow and beginning to set (by early October, they are hanging low in the SW sky shortly after sunset). Enjoy this region hosting the center of our galaxy while you can. Don’t worry about the section of sky overhead…it’ll keep. The archer and the scorpion won’t be positioned like this again in the evening sky until mid-summer, next year.

Next up: Cygnus, Lyra and Aquila.

Venus, aka the evening star, 5/7/12

Venus, aka the evening star, 5/7/12

These denizens were almost directly overhead recently. As goes Sagittarius and Scorpio, the next group takes the stage, still hanging high in the sky, albeit no longer directly overhead, each with its own set of deep sky attractions imbedded: Cygnus hosts the Veil Nebula, the North American Nebula, and is a guidepost to one of the brightest nebulae in the sky, the Dumbbell, in the neighboring constellation of Vulpecula.

Cygnus has a nickname, like a lot of these familiar guys. It’s also called the Northern Cross. Probably because it resembles one. One of its stars, Deneb, makes up one of three bright, first-magnitude stars that comprise the “summer triangle”: Deneb (Cygnus), Altair (Aquila), and Vega (Lyra). More on that trinity shortly.

As you look at the “cross” shape, slewing a telescope to the westernmost “wing” will reveal a ghostly nebulosity that is the major portion of the Veil Nebula. Patience is an enormous asset with this one. It’s relatively faint, and extends over an almost three-degree section of sky. It reminds me of an ancient appendectomy scar…just a ghost of what once happened (a dying star having expended the last of its energy, followed by violently casting off its “shell”). Finding a dark site, and I mean one with absolutely zero lighting, is essential for spotting this elusive gem. But “bagging” this particular quarry is well worth the effort. It’s breathtaking in its beauty.

Slewing your scope upward to the “top” of the cross (the swan’s hind end, actually) will reveal an even less defined, but substantially larger, player: the North American Nebula.
Again, a dark site and dark-adapted eyes are crucial to seeing these attractions in all their, well, nebulous glory. Try to catch this one early in the evening, right after it gets totally dark: under pristine skies, and with your eyes fully dark-adapted, you can actually make out a vague “peninsula” representing Florida, and the “gulf” of Mexico!


A little accessory called a nebula filter will make these faint gems “jump out” (yes, as is the case with virtually all hobbies, spending a bit of money becomes almost inevitable–but stargazing still beats flying or sailing, folks, any day of the week, in terms of the ratio of cash outlay to what the hobby yields; at least IMHO).

Now slew your instrument down to the “head” of the swan (or foot of the cross). A rather nondescript star, named Albireo, turns into a razor-sharp, beautiful pair; one orange, the other a pale blue…nice contrast! It’s also a welcome departure, at this point, from the “nebulous” objects (we amateur astronomers call ’em the “faint fuzzies”).

I’ll be posting about the other pair of “DSOs” (Deep Sky Objects, remember?) next time.

Till then, enjoy! Jesse


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