Waiting for Sagittarius
By the beginning of March, even I (early riser though I am) was rarely getting up much before sunrise. But now that daylight saving time has arrived, I will again have splendid views every clear morning of Jupiter and Antares in a dark sky insofar as it ever gets dark here in the city.
I remember watching Antares just like this ten years ago, when I was working on the Messier list. I knew that a whole host of Messier objects followed right behind this brilliant star, in the constellation Sagittarius, but I didn’t manage to catch them until June 7-8, 1997. That was one of the most memorable observing sessions of my life, a night when a whole new world opened up for me. I observed 34 new Messier objects, but it was the quality rather than the quantity that was so remarkable. It helped a lot that I was under a reasonably dark sky, where I could appreciate the objects properly.
Next stop M8, the Lagoon Nebula, a great cloud of light surrounding a cluster of brilliant stars. I was totally floored; I’d never imagined anything like it. Then down to the tail of Scorpius, with M7 and M6 just rising out of the trees. What a pair! After the Pleiades, these are probably the two star clusters that show best through small scopes and binoculars. Then up to the heart of the Milky Way, to M24, M17, and M16, each magnificent in its own way and each totally different from the others. That sequence remains to this day my very favorite field in the entire sky.
Seeing any one of these showpieces for the first time would have been a life-changing experience. Seeing them all back to back was overwhelming.
For those of us at mid-northern latitudes, these objects are teasing us right now, poking above the horizon just in time for us to catch them through a telescope, then vanishing into the light of day before we’ve had a chance to get a good look. Just as Antares keeps one step ahead of dawn, so Sagittarius lags one step behind it. And so it will remain until June, when the Sagittarius Milky Way suddenly flips from being an early-morning object to a late-evening object. Which isn’t a great feat, considering how short the nights are at that time of year.
Last but not least, Messier 4, the closest globular cluster to Earth, lies a little more than a degree to the right of Antares. It was a real challenge for me to make it out when I first viewed it from my city home just a barely perceptible highlight in the bright glow along the horizon. But under dark skies, it quickly became one of my favorite showpieces. Its one of just two globular clusters within which my little refractor can make out significant numbers of individual stars. The other one, Messier 22, is in (you guessed it!) Sagittarius.