by Tammy Plotner on January 9, 2009

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The zodiacal constellation of Sagittarius resides on the ecliptic plane and was one of the original 48 constellations charted by Ptolemy to be later adopted as a modern constellation by the IAU. It spans 867 square degrees of sky and ranks 15th in constellation size. It has 7 primary stars in its main asterism and 68 Bayer Flamsteed designation stars within its confines. Sagittarius is bordered by the constellations of Aquila, Scutum, Serpens Cauda, Ophiuchus, Scorpius. Corona Australis, Telescopium, Indus, Microscopium and Capricornus. It is visible to all observers located at latitudes between +55° and ?90° and is best seen at culmination during the month of August.

The easily recogniged “tea pot” shape of Sagittarius was well known in mythology as being represented by the half-man, half-horse – the Centaur. According to some legends, he was the offspring of of Philyra and Saturn. Named Chiron, he turned himself into a horse to hide from his jealous wife and was eventually immortalized in the stars. He is often depicted as an archer as well, with his arrow pointed directly at the red heart of the Scorpion – Antares. Sagittarius may represent the son of Pan, who invented archery and was sent to entertain the Muses who threw a laurel wreath at his feet. No matter what identity you choose, one thing is for certain – there’s no mistaking the presence of the nearby Sagittarius arm of the Milky Way!

(Since the constellation of Sagittarius is simply slopping over with deep sky objects, creating a small, workable chart here would be very confusing. For this reason, I have only chosen a few of my favorite objects to highlight and I hope you enjoy them, too!)

Let’s begin our binocular tour of Sagittarius with its alpha star – the “a” symbol on our map. Located far south in the constellation, Alpha Sagittarii is far from being the brightest of its stars and goes by the traditional name of Rukbat – the “knee of the Archer”. It’s nothing special. Just a typical blue, class AB dwarf star located about 170 light years from Earth, but it often gets ignored because of its position. Have a look at Beta while you’re there, too. It’s the “B” symbol on our map. That’s right! It’s a visual double star and its name is Arkab – the “hamstring”. Now, power up in a telescope. Arkab Prior is the westernmost and it truly is a binary star accompanied by a 7th magnitude dwarf star and seperated by about 28 arcseconds. It’s located about 378 light years from Earth. Now, hop east for Arkab Posterior. It is a spectral type F2 giant star, but much closer at 137 light years in distance.

Now turn your attention towards Epsilon Sagittarii – the backwards “3″ symbol on our chart. Kaus Australis is actually the brightest star in the bottom righthand corner of the teapot and the brightest of all the stars in Sagittarius and the 36th brightest in the night sky. Hanging out in space some 134 light years from our solar system, this A-class giant star is much hotter than most of its main sequence peers and spinning over 70 times faster on its axis than our Sun. This rapid movement has caused a shell to form around the star, dimming its brightness… But not nearly as dim as its 14th magnitude companion! That’s right… Epsilon is a binary star. The disparate companion is well seperated at 32 arc seconds, but will require a larger telescope to pick away from its bright companion!

Ready for more? Then have a look at Gamma – the “Y” symbol on our map. Alnasl, the “arrowhead” is two star systems that share the same name. If you have sharp eyes, you can even split this visual double star without aid! However, take a look in the telescope… Gamma-1 Sagittarii is a Cepheid 1500 light year distant variable star in disguise. It drops by almost a full stellar magnitude in just a little under 8 days! Got a big telescope? Then take a closer look, because Gamma-1 also shows evidence of being a close binary star, as well has having two more distant 13th magnitude companions, W Sagittarii B, and C separated by 33 and 48 arcseconds respectively. How about Gamma-2? It’s just a regular type-K giant star – but it’s only 96 light years from Earth!

Located just slightly more than a fingerwidth above Gamma Sagittarii and 5500 light-years away, NGC 6520 (RA 18 03 24 Dec -27 53 00) is a galactic star cluster which formed millions of years ago. Its blue stars are far younger than our own Sun, and may very well have formed from what you don’t see nearby – a dark, molecular cloud. Filled with dust, Barnard 86 literally blocks the starlight coming from our galaxy’s own halo area in the direction of the core. To get a good idea of just how much light is blocked by B 86, take a look at the star SAO 180161 on the edge. Behind this obscuration lies the densest part of our Milky Way! This one is so dark that it’s often referred to as the “Ink Spot.” While both NGC 6520 and B 86 are about the same distance away, they don’t reside in the hub of our galaxy, but in the Sagittarius Spiral Arm. Seen in binoculars as a small area of compression, and delightfully resolved in a telescope, you’ll find this cluster is on the Herschel “400″ list and many others as well.

Are you ready for a whirlwind tour of the Messier Catalog objects with binoculars or a small telescope? Then let’s start at the top with the “Nike Swoosh” of M17.
Easily viewed in binoculars of any size and outstanding in every telescope, the 5000 light-year distant Omega Nebula was discovered by Philippe Loys de Chéseaux in 1745-46 and later (1764) cataloged by Messier as object 17 (RA 18 20 26 Dec -16 10 36). This beautiful emission nebula is the product of hot gases excited by the radiation of newly born stars. As part of a vast region of interstellar matter, many of its embedded stars don’t show up in photographs, but reveal themselves beautifully to the eye at the telescope. As you look at its unique shape, you realize many of these areas are obscured by dark dust, and this same dust is often illuminated by the stars themselves. Often known as “The Swan,” M17 will appear as a huge, glowing check mark or ghostly “2″ in the sky – but power up if you use a larger telescope and look for a long, bright streak across its northern edge with extensions to both the east and north. While the illuminating stars are truly hidden, you will see many glittering points in the structure itself and at least 35 of them are true members of this region, which spans up to 40 light-years and could form up to 800 solar masses. It is awesome…

Keeping moving south and you will see a very small collection of stars known as M18, and a bit more south will bring up a huge cloud of stars called M24. This patch of Milky Way “stuff” will show a wonderful open cluster – NGC 6603 – to average telescopes and some great Barnard darks to larger ones. M24 is often referred to as the “Small Sagittarius Star Cloud”. This vast region is easily seen unaided from a dark sky site and is a stellar profusion in binoculars. Telescopes will find an enclosed galactic cluster – NGC 6603 – on its northern border. For those of you who prefer a challenge, look for Barnard Dark Nebula, B92, just above the central portion.

Now we’re going to shift to the southeast just a touch and pick up the M25 open cluster. M25 is a scattered galactic cluster that contains a cephid variable – U Sagittarii. This one is a quick change artist, going from magnitude 6.3 to 7.1 in less than seven days. Keep an eye on it over the next few weeks by comparing it to the other cluster members. Variable stars are fun! Head due west about a fist’s width to capture the next open cluster – M23. From there, we are dropping south again and M21 will be your reward. Head back for your scope and remember your area, because the M20 “Triffid Nebula” is just a shade to the southwest. Small scopes will pick up on the little glowing ball, but anything from about 4″ up can see those dark dust lanes that make this nebula so special. The “Trifid” nebula appears initially as two widely spaced stars – one of which is a low power double – each caught in its own faint lobe of nebulosity. Keen eyed observers will find that the double star – HN 40 – is actually a superb triple star system of striking colors! The 7.6 magnitude primary appears blue. Southwest is a reddish 10.7 magnitude secondary while a third companion of magnitude 8.7 is northwest of the primary.

Described as “trifid” by William Herschel in 1784, this tri-lobed pattern of faint luminosity broken by a dark nebula – Barnard 85 – is associated with the southern triple. This region is more brightly illuminated due to the presence of the star cluster and is suffused with a brighter, redder reflection nebula of hydrogen gas. The northern part of the Trifid (surrounding the solitary star) is fainter and bluer. It shines by excitation and is composed primarily of doubly ionized oxygen gas. The entire area lies roughly 5000 light-years away. What makes M20 the “Trifid” nebula, are the series of dark, dissecting dust lanes meeting at the nebula’s east and west edges, while the southernmost dust lane ends in the brightest portion of the nebula. With much larger scopes, M20 shows differences in concentration in each of the lobes along with other embedded stars. It requires a dark night, but the Trifid is worth the hunt. On excellent nights of seeing, larger scopes will show the Trifid much as it appears in black and white photographs!

You can go back to the binoculars again, because the M8 “Lagoon Nebula” is south again and very easy to see. Easily located about three finger-widths above the tip of the teapot’s spout (Al Nasl), M8 is one of Sagittarius’ premier objects. This combination of emission/reflection and dark nebula only gets better as you add an open cluster. Spanning a half a degree of sky, this study is loaded with features. One of the most prominent is a curving dark channel dividing the area nearly in half. On its leading (western) side you will note two bright stars. The southernmost of this pair (9 Sagittarii) is thought to be the illuminating source of the nebula. On the trailing (eastern) side, is brightly scattered cluster NGC 6530 containing 18 erratically changing variables known as “flare stars.” For large scopes, and those with filters, look for small patches of dark nebulae called “globules.” These are thought to be “protostar” regions – areas where new stars undergo rapid formation. Return again to 9 Sagittarii and look carefully at a concentrated portion of the nebula west-southwest. This is known as the “Hourglass” and is a source of strong radio emission.

This particular star hop is very fun. If you have children who would like to see some of these riches, point out the primary stars and show them how it looks like a dot-to-dot “tea kettle.” From the kettle’s “spout” pours the “steam” of the Milky Way. If you start there, all you will need to do is follow the “steam” trail up the sky and you can see the majority of these with ease.

At the top of the “tea kettle” is Lambda. This is our marker for two easy binocular objects. The small M28 globular cluster is quite easily found just a breath to the north/northwest. The larger, brighter and quite wonderful globular cluster M22 is also very easily found to Lambda’s northeast. Ranking third amidst the 151 known globular clusters in total light, M22 is probably the nearest of these incredible systems to our Earth, with an approximate distance of 9,600 light-years. It is also one of the nearest globulars to the galactic plane. Since it resides less than a degree from the ecliptic, it often shares the same eyepiece field with a planet. At magnitude 6, the class VII M22 will begin to show individual stars to even modest instruments and will burst into stunning resolution for larger aperture. About a degree west-northwest, mid-sized telescopes and larger binoculars will capture the smaller 8th magnitude NGC 6642 (RA 18 31 54 Dec -23 28 34). At class V, this particular globular will show more concentration toward the core region than M22. Enjoy them both!

Now we’re roaming into “binocular possible” but better with the telescope objects. The southeastern corner of the “tea kettle” is Zeta, and we’re going to hop across the bottom to the west. Starting at Zeta, slide southwest to capture globular cluster M54. Keep heading another three degrees southwest and you will see the fuzzy ball of M70. Just around two degrees more to the west is another globular that looks like M70′s twin. The small globular M55 is out there in “No Man’s Land” about a fist’s width away east/south east of Zeta .

Ready for a big telescope challenge? Then try your hand at one the sky’s most curious galaxies – NGC 6822. This study is a telescopic challenge even for skilled observers. Set your sights roughly 2 degrees northeast of easy double 54 Sagittarii, and have a look at this distant dwarf galaxy bound to our own Milky Way by invisible gravitational attraction…

Named after its discoverer (E. E. Barnard – 1884), “Barnard’s Galaxy” is a not-so-nearby member of our local galaxy group. Discovered with a 6″ refractor, this 1.7 million light-year distant galaxy is not easily found, but can be seen with very dark sky conditions and at the lowest possible power. Due to large apparent size, and overall faintness (magnitude 9), low power is essential in larger telescopes to give a better sense of the galaxy’s frontier. Observers using large scopes will see faint regions of glowing gas (HII regions) and unresolved concentrations of bright stars. To distinguish them, try a nebula filter to enhance the HII and downplay the star fields. Barnard’s Galaxy appears like a very faint open cluster overlaid with a sheen of nebulosity, but the practiced eye using the above technique will clearly see that the “shine” behind the stars is extragalactic in nature.

Now look less than a degree north-northwest to turn up pale blue-green NGC 6818 – the “Little Gem” planetary. Easily found in any size scope, this bright and condensed nebula reveals its annular nature in larger scopes but hints at it in scopes as small as 6″. Use a super wide field long-focus eyepiece to frame them both!

Be sure to get a good star chart and enjoy the constellation of Sagittarius to its fullest potential – there’s lots more out there!

Chandra Observatory
Chart Courtesy of Your Sky.


Tammy is a professional astronomy author, President Emeritus of Warren Rupp Observatory and retired Astronomical League Executive Secretary. She’s received a vast number of astronomy achievement and observing awards, including the Great Lakes Astronomy Achievement Award, RG Wright Service Award and the first woman astronomer to achieve Comet Hunter's Gold Status.

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