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The Teapot is Steaming!

As soon as it’s dark, around 9pm look for a constellation in the low southern skies that clearly resembles a teapot. A triangle of three bright stars make up the spout on the right side and a trapezoid on four stars on the left side make up the handle. In between and above the handle and the pot is a single star that marks the top of the teapot.

That celestial teapot is the main part of the classic constellation Sagittarius the Archer. According to Greek and Roman lore the teapot we see is suppose to outline a half man- half horse flinging an arrow to the west toward the next door constellation Scorpius the Scorpion. Unlike Sagittarius though Scorpius actually looks like a Scorpion. With a little imagination you can see what looks likes a figure shooting an arrow at Scorpius.

Without a doubt though it's much easier to see Sagittarius as a teapot and if your fortunate enough to be stargazing in the dark you’ll easily see a band of light arching overhead stretching all the way from the northern horizon to the southern horizon. This is the famous Milky Way Band, the thickest part of home galaxy. You can’t help but notice that the Milky Way band runs right into Sagittarius. In fact the center of our Milky Way Galaxy is right in the direction of the little teapot. The downtown section of home galaxy would appear a lot brighter in our sky but there’s a lot of obscuring interstellar gas and dust in the way. Many astronomers believe that if it weren’t for all that gas and dust the part of the sky around Sagittarius would be brighter than the full moon.

Nonetheless that part of the Milky Way band around the Teapot is fairly bright anyway and loaded with a lot a fun stuff. It’s a very busy part of the sky and even with a small telescope or even a pair of binoculars you’ll find many, many star clusters and nebulae.

In fact if you look above the spout of the teapot it almost looks like a puff of steam. That puff is known astronomically as Messier Object 8, the Lagoon Nebula. It's a bright emission nebula that's one of the larger and brighter star factories we can see in our night skies and you don’t need all that fancy of a telescope to get a good look at it. This giant cloud of hydrogen gas, the raw material it takes to make a star is over 5000 light-years away and roughly a 100 light-years in diameter. Just one light-year equals close to six trillion miles. Stars form when denser pockets of hydrogen gas gravitationally collapse, causing the inner core of these condensed balls to rise millions and millions of degrees. When the core of these gas ball reaches a high enough temperature, nuclear fusion begins and you a have a new star in the heavens. Within in the Lagoon Nebula you can see many new young single stars and clusters of stars and there's a lot more on the way. These new young stars are very hot and huge producers of ultraviolet radiation and all this energy atomically energizes the surrounding hydrogen gas and causes it to glow like neon light. If your view is clear enough and your telescope strong enough you may see strands of dark clouds across parts of the nebula. These clouds of hydrogen gas that don’t happen to have bright new stars around them and so they appear to us in their raw form, dark.

Enjoy the Lagoon Nebula above the spout of the teapot and all the celestial treasures around Sagittarius. It’s definitely one of my favorite parts of the night sky.


Diagram of SAGITTARIUS...Click here