Jimmy Westlake: The teapot at the end of the Milky Way



Jimmy Westlake/Courtesy

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 to the west.

Jimmy Westlake

Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears monthly in the Steamboat Today.

Find more columns by Westlake here.

— Legend has it that a pot of gold awaits you at the end of the rainbow, if you are lucky enough to find it. No luck at all is required, though, 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.

As the last rays of the summer sun fade from the evening sky, the misty star clouds of the Milky Way come into view, arching high 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, proudly adorned this summer with the dazzling planet Jupiter.

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 much easier to imagine the outline of a teapot made of eight stars, complete with lid, handle on the left and 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 to the west.

There are several smaller asterisms in the stars of Sagittarius that are worth pointing out, too. Just above brilliant Jupiter is a grouping of five or six stars that forms the outline of a little teaspoon full of sugar, perfect for keeping with the whole teapot theme.

The five stars that make up the handle and top of the teapot form a delightful little sub-asterism called the Milk Dipper, which bears a startling resemblance to its bigger cousin to the north.

About a hand-span to the left, or east, of the teapot is a quartet of stars that represents the tail of the centaur and looks like a tiny crucifix, so small that you could hide it behind your thumb. Its nickname is the Terebellum, because of its resemblance to the tiny mollusk of the same name. Check this one out with your binoculars. It's one of my favorite little asterisms in the whole sky.

Sweep your binoculars around the stars of the Teapot, and you will discover a treasure trove of colorful nebulae and star clusters. The Great Sagittarius Star Cluster, 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 half-a-million stars and lies 10,000 light years in the distance. It looks like the fuzzy head of a dandelion through binoculars. Just above the spout of the teapot is M8, a magnificent glowing cloud of pink hydrogen gas called the Lagoon Nebula. Many other beautiful star clusters, such as M6, M7, M23 and M25, adorn the area around Sagittarius, as well.

And, of course, don't forget Jupiter. The giant planet is vacationing in Sagittarius this summer, but, by next summer, will be hanging out in the stars of Capricornus to the east. Hold your binoculars very steady, and you might be able to spot the four giant moons of Jupiter hiding in its glare.

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

Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have been published on the Web sites of CNN.com, NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day" Web site, Spaceweather.com, Space.com, Discover.com, MSNBC.com, NationalGeographic.com, and in Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, Night Sky, Discover, and WeatherWise magazines. His "Celestial News" article appears weekly in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. His "Cosmic Moment" radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Also, check out Jimmy's Web site at www.jwestlake.com.


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