24 August 2009

The Milky Way and the Galactic Center

At the SFAA star party a couple nights ago on Mt Tam, the conditions were very clear and dark and we had a nice view of the Milky Way. With an excellent southern horizon, we could see all of Scorpius and Sagittarius and as my daughter and I were giving star tours to guests at the star party, I was happy to point out these two constellations and note that the center of the Milky Way was in the vicinity of the tail of Scorpius and the "teapot" of Sagittarius. This is called the "Galactic Center" and is the central bulge of the Milky Way Galaxy.

Looking toward the galactic center, however, you don't see a huge ball of light. That is because there is a massive dust cloud that lies between the Sun and the galactic center. Too bad for us, because it would be quite amazing to see the center of our own galaxy. Nonetheless, there is much richness in the sky near the galactic center and even in city lights you can begin to see some of that beauty if you use a pair of binoculars. Standard 7x35 or 10x50 binoculars can substantially increase the amount of light you can see, and that means you can begin to discern the stars and shapes of deep space objects such as the Lagoon Nebula or the Swan Nebula. Take out binoculars and point yourself south and see if you can start to see some of the wonders that are at the heart of the Milky Way.

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