Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Touring the Summer Milky Way Superhighway Part 1/2


The Summer Milky Way is a treasure trove of eye candies - star clusters, nebulae and the likes of it. On my recent trip to Mersing I had the pleasure to try my newly acquired Oberwerk 22x100 giant binoculars on what I dubbed the ‘Milky Way Superhighway’. And oh boy was it such a treat!

Guide map to the 'Milky Way Superhighway’. M(number) is the ‘code’ for the said deep sky object, a list compiled by a French guy Charles Messier in 1771. The lists includes some of the best views in the night sky and the Milky Way Superhighway are home to quite a few of them.

milky way superhighway

1. Identify the twin stars on Scorpio’s tail, Shaula and Lesath (yes they have their names). Draw a line in between these two stars and extrapolate to reach your first star-tourist attraction – M7 Ptolemy’s Cluster. Pause for a while and gaze at this beautiful star cluster, discovered by Ptolemy in 130 AD and described as ‘the nebula that always followed Scorpio’s tail’. Obviously it is not a nebula, but telescope observations didn’t take place until the 1600’s. And Charles Messier made it his 7th celestial object of comet wannabes.


image2. Well then, you noticed that there seems to be some ‘tendrils’ protruding from the fairly straight 5-star formation. Follow the direction of the two ‘tendrils’ with the lesser separation to reach M6 Butterfly Cluster. Note that as the night progresses the orientation of the cluster in the binoculars/telescope might not resemble the one shown in this page so take note!

The Butterfly Cluster lives up to its name, it is a beautiful cluster shaped like a butterfly. The only lone red star in a sea of blue only adds to its uniqueness.

image3. Now we will take a slightly long hike and leave the province of Scorpio.

The hike to M8 Lagoon Nebula is a little tricky. First, go back and forth from M6 to M7 to gauge the distance between the two clusters. Then, at an angle of 90 degrees to the side where the red star is at M6, turn your knobs three times that distance, then turn another 90 degrees to the other side to find M8.

You might not find it the first time round. Try to ‘scan’ the right side of the sky when you’re turning the knobs (as indicated with the yellow arrows) during your hike to the Lagoon. If you are using a finderscope do also check your positio with Alnasl and the other star to gauge your distance and check whether you’re heading in the right direction.

Well then, you think you’ve reached M8! Why don’t you see the characteristic red glow of the nebulae? If you’re expecting that, sorry to tell you that our eyes will never see the colour of a nebula, it is simply too faint. Only cameras can capture that red glow. In fact, we don’t even see colours in our own Milky Way, it just appears as a thin hazy cloud to us.

If your sky is good you can see some wispy hazy smudges in your telescope/binoculars. These are really the best you can see already, it’s called the ‘nebulosity’ of the object. But if you don’t, do not fret! We have a way to I.D. the M8 -


This is a 1-second exposure from my telescope. Notice the pattern of stars in the red circle – it resembles a three leaf clover :-) yeah, that’s how you identify this fella!

Just beside the clover you will see another few groups of stars. Take your time to identify the patterns of stars if you can observe no nebulosity. It’s hard, but it’s quite worth the hunt. The M20 Trifid Nebula is actually a very nice and colourful two-coloured nebula.


4. Now let’s go on to the M23 “Heart-shaped” open cluster.


Draw a line from the clover formation of M8 and the triangle formation on M20 and extrapolate to navigate to M23. M23 is at a magnitude (brightness scale) of 5.5 so it might be a little tough to find it under city or suburban skies or with telescopes with less aperture. I did it with my 4-inch though.


The “heart-shape” name was my moniker for this cluster because it was the way how I identified it. The heart will be quite distinct if you manage to locate this cluster. This cluster is pretty small though, be prepared to see a small heart unlike the picture featured here.



Well then that’s all for Part 1. Stay tuned for Part 2!

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