Jimmy Westlake: The teapot in the sky

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Legend has it that a pot of gold awaits you at the end of the rainbow -- if you are lucky enough to find the end. No luck is required, however, to find the pot of tea at the end of the Milky Way. All you need is a clear, dark night and an unobstructed view of the southern sky.

When the last rays of the summer sun fade from the evening sky, the misty star clouds of the Milky Way come into view, arching almost directly overhead like a colorless rainbow. Follow this milky road down to the south, and there you will find the zodiacal constellation of Sagittarius the Archer. Our ancient ancestors imagined a centaur in these stars -- half man, half horse -- holding a bow and arrow aimed directly at Antares, the heart of the nearby Scorpion. I challenge anyone to look at those stars and find a centaur holding a bow and arrow!

Instead, most modern sky watchers find it easier to imagine the outline of a teapot made of eight stars, complete with a top, a handle on the left and a spout on the right. The steamy star clouds of the Milky Way seem to be boiling right out of the teapot's spout as it tips over to pour its scalding hot contents onto the tail of the Scorpion.

If you have a pair of binoculars, sweep them around the stars of the teapot and you will discover a treasure trove of colorful nebulae and star clusters. M22, just east of the top star in the teapot, is one of the finest globular star clusters visible anywhere in the sky. It contains more than a half-million stars and is 10,000 light years away from Earth. Just above the spout of the teapot is M8, a magnificent glowing cloud of hydrogen gas called the Lagoon Nebula. Other beautiful star clusters, such as M6, M7, M23 and M25, adorn the area around Sagittarius as well.

Just west of the teapot's spout is the direction to the center of our Milky Way galaxy. We can't observe it directly because of the intervening clouds of gas, dust and stars, but 28,000 light years in that direction lies the dark heart of the Milky Way, a super-massive black hole weighing as much as two million suns.

With all of the celestial delights that Sagittarius and its Teapot asterism have to offer, maybe there is a pot of gold at the end of the Milky Way.

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