Scorpius the Scorpion
In the scorpion we find lots of bright stars that make an obvious fish hook shape, especially when you ignore the claws that the Romans surgically shortened in order to make Libra. In fact some natives of the south pacific call this constellation “Maui’s Hook.” You see Maui is one of the gods in the lands down under. His followers say that as far as gods go, he’s pretty goddam powerful. But he’s a terrible fisherman. Horrible. Worst fisherman ever. One day he went fishing and his hook snagged on the bottom of the ocean. He was sure he had caught a big fish so he pulled super hard, and he pulled up an entire island. Probably somewhere north of New Zealand, hard to say, it was a long time ago.
In the heart of the scorpion is a giant red star, Antares. Mathematically speaking it lives in a rural retirement center, Star Haven Estates, a quiet community for elderly members of the Hertzsprung Russell subdivision. It’s like hospice for stars. At some point Antares will bequeath a huge portion of its valuables to future generations. When that happens they’ll call it a supernova and it will be one hell of a party. Then Antares will shrink from being a red supergiant down to a black hole and go to live on a farm with rabbits.
Antares means “Rival of Mars” and it’s a good name because Antares and Mars hate each other. It’s ironic because they look just alike. I once saw them side by side and I could hardly tell them apart, except that one is a geometric point of scintillating starlight and the other one looks like a planet. I’m sure NASA has it sorted out.
Much of the Messier deep sky hoopla concerning both Scorpius and nearby Ophiuchus is about the globular clusters, of which this area provides an ample supply. Unlike those modern wimpy little whipper-snapper open clusters, like the Pleiades, The globulars have real gravitational cohesion. Open clusters tend to tear themselves to pieces in short order, but the globulars are not so fragile. Whenever the chaos in their orbits sends a star flying out, all the others pull it right back in. That’s why they’ve lasted so long. Strict zoning ordinances and neighborhood covenants, maybe mount a few 30mm deck guns, that’s how you keep a gated community intact.
Globular clusters are simply amazing. I think the name sounds like some sort of tasty little snack. Grandma’s homemade globular clusters, they sparkle when you bite ’em. But show some respect. Globulars are probably made out of the oldest stars in the whole damn Universe. They are the ancient ones. According to certain reckonings some of them are even older than the Universe. I don’t know about that, seems excessive, but they are assuredly older than the galaxies. There are a couple of hundred of the buggers buzzing around our galaxy, and we can see them out there attacking other galaxies as well.
Globulars are beautiful in telescopes. They have tens of thousands, some of them hundreds of thousands, or even millions of stars. They can fill the entirety of your eyepiece with stars, and they will, believe me. Oh yes they will. Sometimes we call them “Los campos de diamantes” – The fields of diamonds. True story.
Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer
Here’s a bit of trivia for you. It might win you a bet someday, let’s face it, that’s what most of this information is good for. But Ophiuchus, the big snake-fighter guy, is the thirteenth sign of the zodiac, depending on where you start your count. That’s right, there are thirteen stations of the Sun.
The Benevolent Order of Astronomy Brotherhood was able to keep this fact a secret for thousands of years, but a couple of years ago some planetarium bozo in the mid-west let it leak out on Facebook. You know who else couldn’t keep a secret on Facebook? Hitler. Anyway, you talk about a shit storm. I got so many texts of OMG-WTF? I even got a call from a newspaper reporter. But once a story finally makes it to the paper you know it’s pretty much already run its course.
Just when the storm had died down, and the brotherhood returned to teaching youngsters a better way to say Uranus, it happened again. That same brother posted about precession of the equinox. Holy Crapola Batman what were you thinking? Suddenly the astrologers (und andere schweinhund) demanded to know how we could be so careless as to let the Sun slip westward. It’s a travesty. It’s a disaster. What if some middle-aged singles were dating the wrong middle-aged singles, or something? Okay, calm down. Fortunately, having studied the charts and graphs, and calculated the geometric manifestations, I have proven to within 99% confidence that the Sun will continue to ignore our arbitrary compartmentalization of star groups, and in only 24,000 more years it will have completed the circuit and returned to proper alignment. So don’t panic. We’ll tweet something when it’s getting close. By then Google will have some sort of moon-sized widget in the sky that we use to disseminate such critical information.
Big snake-fighter guy is so big, he got divided into parts. He’s wrangling and strangling a long incorrigible serpent that stretches east and west a bit too far, so the snake’s head (serpens caput) and the snake’s tail (serpens cauda) are small separate add-on constellations. I mention this because I wouldn’t want to leave out M16, the Eagle Nebula, in the snake’s tail. It’s pretty famous and by simply stretching the truth I can include it as part of the zodiac and not be a totally horrible person.
The Eagle Nebula contains the so called “Pillars of Creation” which is a lofty title for something that is also known as “A Bunch of Gas.” These stellar eggs that will eventually hatch out into stars are mostly just big balls of hydrogen, and the Eagle does have some rather big ones. Star eggs are called Bok Globules and by the way, not all of them are big, or even massive enough to ever become full-fledged stars. The smaller of them are destined to forever be cast as star wannabees, like the waitresses in Anaheim.
Sagittarius the Archer
The archer also happens to be a centaur, but don’t confuse him with Centaurus. We have two of these man-horse thingies in the sky. Centaurus is the one with the Aussie accent. Sagittarius is the one shooting the snake fighter in the toe.
The bright stars of Sagittarius form a very convincing teapot shape. It’s one of those classic story book teapots as in “here is my handle, here is my spout.” But then “tip me over and 400 billion stars come blasting out.” Simply connecting the stars of the teapot presents the abstract version but there are enough puffy eddies and swirls and star clouds to the galactic nebulosity in that direction, that your brain can actually make a pretty decent 3D teapot out of it, providing you get out of the city where the sky has a nice contrast and texture. And take some mushrooms.
M8 is the Lagoon Nebula because in a telescope it looks like an island with a large lagoon opening out to the sea. It is quite large and bright to the naked eye, lying in the knotted stellar braids of the summer Milky Way. It is an emission nebula, a nursery of newborns, like the Eagle Nebula.
Frankly M8 reminds me of an aerial shot of Gilligan’s Island. Remember? Weird plot devices were always washing ashore in the lagoon on that show. Remember? Gilligan’s Island, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, and Beverly Hillbillies were all on prime time TV during the “why cousins shouldn’t marry” era of home entertainment.
M17 is the Swan or the Omega, a bird on a lake or a Greek letter, depending on just how distortedly abstract you are willing to allow either of those things to be. Basically it’s warmed up hydrogen atoms, so incredibly excited by the arrival of nearby stars that their electrons are starting to ricochet around in quantum orbitals, especially those that produce 656.28nm wavelengths of photon energy, which our brains tend to interpret as a cross between a subtle shade of raspberry and a harsh magenta. Star hopper types live for that kind of excitement.
M20 is called the Trifid Nebula because it is divided into three parts, just like Julius Caesar did to France. Technically it would be Gaul not France, since I think the Franks were as yet only a small part of that ethnography. But not only does the Trifid have the glowing reddish hallmark of star birth, it has a bonus reflection nebula of bluish light scattered by a nearby cloud of dust particles. This Messier is a big hit at parties where everyone read the classics in original latin.
For some strange reason there were posters of Messiers on the bridge of the USS Enterprise on the original Star Trek series. I always thought that was a bit like going to see Paris and taking along a picture of the Eiffel Tower. You can just look out the stinking window for criminy sakes. Someone must have agreed with me at some point because eventually the Picard generation came along and beamed them down or something (they really have to go number one).
If you look just west of the spout of the Sagittarian teapot you will be looking into the very heart of the Milky Way Galaxy. There is good reason to think that you are also looking towards a supermassive black hole. At least that’s the simplest explanation for the weird stuff we detect going on. There are stars over there moving so fast that they should have gone zinging into intergalactic space a long time ago. Something dense is holding them back. Something dense like the meatballs at Olive Garden. And also there are gases squirting out of the neighborhood near the center like a fire hose. We see the fire hose effect happening in lots of galaxies. Now days we suspect that most if not all galaxies have supermassive black holes in the middle. It’s apparently something that is just “baked into the cake” as they say.
You can’t see all the way to the center of our galaxy. You can’t see far at all in that direction, not with my telescope anyway. The cloud of smog hanging over Sagittarius is impenetrable with amateur scopes. Professionals can peek through the cloud somewhat at certain wavelengths but it’s still pretty mysterious. Even the cloud blocking our view itself is mysterious. Mostly what we know about the cloud is that it’s dark and it probably smells like Tacoma.
To get the big picture you have to realize how relatively tiny our planet really is. If our whole solar system could fit in a coffee cup, say a triple grande caramel macchiato with extra whip, then our galaxy would be the size of the North American Continent. You can put a lot of coffee cups in North America. And we do. And I’m only talking about the bright disk of the galaxy. If you include the rural delivery routes out there in the halo with the globular clusters, then we’re talking about comparing a coffee cup to the whole Earth. No wonder we can’t see the core, although, I wouldn’t be surprised if they have a Starbucks there. Those things are everywhere. The other day I went into a Starbucks, and there was another Starbucks!
Seasons of the Night