Popular Astronomy

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Sights of the southern summer Milky Way

If you manage to get away from the streetlights this summer, you might actually get to see the Milky Way itself. And if you use binoculars, you may even start to spot some of those strange fuzzy objects that people go on about – the nebulae and star clusters. They look like hazy spots, and it's not obvious what they really are in binoculars. So here's our guide to the brightest of them.

Start by looking south and finding the Teapot shape of Sagittarius, to the left of Antares. Here's a map of the area:

Southern Milky Way

Finding the fuzzies

The brightest fuzzy spot is right above the spout of the Teapot. In a good sky you can probably make it out with the unaided eye, and in binoculars there is a small star cluster alongside a misty patch. This is M8, the Lagoon Nebula. (The M refers to its number in the catalogue of bright fuzzy objects listed by French observer Charles Messier in the 18th century.) In photos it shows up as a swirl of red hydrogen gas, but unfortunately our eyes are not very sensitive to the deep red colour and we just see it as boring old grey. This is something you're going to have to get used to – photos are often more spectacular than what you can see. But at least you are seeing it for yourself. It gets its name from a rather fanciful vision of a lagoon on a tropical island, but it makes you wonder what some of those 19th century gents who gave the names were actually on....

Above M8 it is the Trifid Nebula, also spectacular in photos but less dramatic in binoculars. It gets its name from the dark lanes in the nebula that divide it into three, not because it looks like a Triffid (a man-eating plant in a science fiction story). Sorry. The spelling is different as well.

M23, above that, is a star cluster. M24, to its left, is actually just a bright patch or star cloud in the Milky Way, though there is some disagreement about whether Messier meant this or a smaller cluster within it. But it certainly stands out when skies are clear. Above this is another bright nebula, M17. This is also known as the Swan Nebula, and if you have higher power binoculars or a small telescope you might be able to see why – it really does look like a swan, though upside down.

To the left of the M24 star cloud you can see a more compact star cluster, M25, and below that, near the top star of the Teapot, is a globular cluster, M22. This may look more like a fuzzy star unless you have high-power binoculars or a small telescope. It's actually the brightest globular cluster visible from the northern hemisphere, but being down in Sagittarius it may not look as spectacular as M13 in Hercules.

Also shown on the map are two more clusters, M6 and M7. These are really hard to see from the UK, but if you are on holiday farther south you should be able to pick these up more easily.

The photograph below, taken in July 2010 from the Channel Island of Guernsey, shows all these objects. See how many you can pick out.

Southern Milky Way
Text by Robin Scagell