Week of July 29-Aug. 4, 2018
Nothing in the heavens says summertime to Northern Hemisphere sky watchers quite like the constellation Sagittarius. On late July and early August evenings, we can find this prominent star grouping low in our south-southeastern sky just after dark.
Sagittarius, the Archer, is often depicted as a centaur, half-man and half-horse, most likely because ancient Greek and Roman authors often confused Sagittarius with Centaurus, a constellation farther southwest. Interestingly, however, its origin may be much earlier. The stellar figure seems to personify the archer Nergal, a god of war inscribed on ancient Sumerian cuneiform tablets. It's even included as a "Horse's Head" or "Horseman" in the 3,000-year-old zodiac of India, while the human part of the figure is depicted by a fan of lion tails owned by the wife of an Indian ruler.
Of course, you can search for a horseman or archer among the stars if you'd like. But if you'd prefer to save your sanity, forget about such a figure and look instead for the outline of an old-fashioned teapot. You'll find eight stars that easily trace the teapot body, handle, lid and spout. Just above the teapot, we can even find the outline of a sugar spoon and below it a slice of lemon formed by the southern constellation Corona Australis, the Southern Crown.
Stargazers with a moonless sky far from city lights will see a hazy cloud of what looks like vapor streaming upward from the teapot spout. This is the Milky Way that seems to rise out of the southern horizon and stretch completely across the sky to the north.
The section of the Milky Way marks the direction of our galaxy's center. Though no one can see its core directly because of all the gobs of interstellar material filling the 26,000 or so light-years that separate us, astronomers suspect that a super-massive black hole might lurk in this galactic core.
The first thing you'll notice about the Milky Way is that it's not uniform in brightness. It is instead mottled with dark rifts along its entire length. These are known to astronomers as giant molecular clouds, or GMCs, massive clouds of interstellar dust that stand in stark silhouette against the Milky Way's brighter stellar band. It is within these GMCs where massive star- and planet-forming regions exist, hidden from eyes not privileged enough to be peering with infrared telescopes.
Scan binoculars along the Milky Way on a clear, dark night and you'll be impressed by all you can see. Binoculars will reveal not only countless stars invisible to the eye but also dozens of deep sky objects, or "faint fuzzies," as astronomers like to call them. These include star clusters and gaseous nebulae. All will appear as small, hazy smudges of light, but if you've got a small telescope, aim it in their direction for an even closer and more impressive look.
I think you'll agree that exploring this region of the heavens from a dark-sky site can be a relaxing and wonderfully stellar way to spend the warm nights of summer!
Visit Dennis Mammana at dennismammana.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.