Locating Messier objects in Sagittarius
By Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory
[click on any image to enlarge]
Hello everyone. I hope you’re having a great travel season. Summer is one of my favorite times of the year for observing the night sky. Our annual trip around the sun on spaceship Earth sails us past some amazing sights in the summer months, and this week I thought I would point out a few of them. I’m going to limit my list to only the objects that French astronomer Charles Messier was able to spot around 300 years ago with his vastly inferior instruments to today’s even inexpensive telescopes. By today’s standards, these objects are big and bright so you should be able to pick them out even with a mediocre pair of binoculars.
With the longer days of summer you are going to have to stay up a little later and wait for astronomical dusk or even later before you can really spot these objects. I recommend after 10:30 p.m. during June and July; you maybe can try a little earlier in August or September. Another advantage of waiting until later in the evening in the early months of summer is that Sagittarius will be much higher in the sky later in the night and therefore out of the sky-glow most of us experience nearer the horizon.
In any event, once you are outside you should seek a spot where you have a clear view to the east. What you will be looking for is a star pattern that looks like a giant teapot in the sky. I have highlighted it in the star chart. One thing you need to be aware of is that Saturn is in Sagittarius this year. This fact can be a big help in spotting the constellation but don’t get too used to using the planet as a guidepost as it won’t be there very long.
OK, now that we have spotted our constellation, let’s see if we can find some very cool stuff in it. First, let’s just give an honorable mention to Saturn! The ringed planet is a wonder to see in a small telescope and if you haven’t seen it with your own eyes it is well worth trying. You will need to make sure your instrument is stabilized on a mount or tripod, but even in a small pair of binoculars you can see the rings. Next, there are a bunch of nice globular clusters in both Sagittarius and Scorpius, I am going to point you to M4, also called the Crab Cluster in Scorpio. Look to the right (south) of the teapot and you should immediately spot a bright orange star called Antares. Now move slowly to the right and up a little – in binoculars you may not have to move at all because this cluster is only about 1 degree separated from Antares. You should be able to spot a fuzzy ball of light about the same size as the full moon. M4 is about 7000 light years from Earth, which makes it one of the closer globular clusters to our home planet.
Next let’s find M8, also called the Lagoon Nebula. This object is going to be a little more challenging but not too difficult to spot. Start by finding the tip of the lid of the teapot, the star Kaus Borealis and the star at the tip of the spout of the teapot, the star Alnasi. Now, in your mind, draw an equilateral triangle with the third point upwards (west). M8 is located at this imaginary third point. Look carefully and you will spot a gray smudge of light with a bright little cluster of baby stars formed by the nebula. That is your target. Now get everything stabilized and take a deep breath, you should be able to make out some of this nebula’s structure and detail seen in Figure 2.
Lastly I will guide you to M20, the Trifid Nebula. This is another beautiful and bright star forming area in Sagittarius. From M8 all you need to do is move slightly up (west) and a tiny bit to the left (north) and you should spot a multi-lobed glowing gas cloud with several bright stars both in and around it. This is a bright emission nebula and star forming region in the direction of our galactic core. Again, once you have this centered in your eyepiece you are going to let everything settle down and take your time looking at it. You should be able to see the lobes that Charles Messier named this object after. In photography it is bright red/pink and blue and, as you can see by my photo, a beautiful part of our universe.
There are a lot more very interesting and wonderful targets in both Sagittarius and Scorpius than I mentioned here. You should take some time to study the star chart and see if you can spot some that I left out. They all have their own rewards and it is most satisfying to capture one of these on your own. Let me know if you do!
Till next time!
Chris Fellows, Serenity Mobile Observatory
Find Chris on Facebook (or, if you’re lucky, at your campground). (Editor: Check out his amazing photos on his Facebook page!)