Explore the Milky Way

Within the summer Milky Way, the bright star Vega in the upper left and Altair the lower right. Find the Coat Hanger as the bright cluster of stars in between them amongst the dust lane of our galaxy. | Ryan Berendsen

The Milky Way in August as seen from the northern shores of Lake Tahoe is spectacular to behold on a moonless evening. Breaching as a gigantic silvery whale, the galaxy’s shape towers across the sky through the constellation of Cassiopeia and at the southern shore it’s heart is exposed near the constellation of Sagittarius; the galactic center.

To gaze upon the galaxy with the naked eye conjures thoughts of the immensity of the cosmos. To explore its’ star fields and dust lanes with binoculars is a visual adventure where discovery meets imagination and beckons the realization of our smallness.

A fun way to explore our galaxy’s neighborhood is with a cosmic scavenger hunt. Here is list of items: Swan, Harp, Dolphin, Arrow, Eagle and Coat Hanger. The best way to find all of these is to head out under the starry sky around 9 p.m. and find the summer triangle stars – Vega, Deneb and Altair.

To explore its’ star fields and dust lanes
with binoculars is a visual adventure where discovery meets imagination and beckons
the realization of our smallness.

You will find the Swan near Deneb, the Eagle near Altair and the Harp by Vega.

The dolphin (Delphinus) is a little more difficult to find since its stars aren’t as bright as the summer triangle, so grab a star gazing app like SkyPortal and ask it to point the way.

Next try for the Arrow (Sagitta), which is closer to the center of the Milky Way band within the Summer Triangle; an app can help with this, too.

Last, the most difficult item: The Coat Hanger (Brocchi’s Cluster). It’s a little asterism shaped like an upside-down coat hanger that is just off the side of Sagitta and below the star Albireo in the Swan. Binoculars will help you find the six stars that form the bar of the hanger, and the another four forming the hook. It’s upside down position in our northern latitude prompts some people to call it the Ski Lift.

Interestingly, the Coat Hanger has been known for over a thousand years for its distinctive shape and grouping of relatively bright stars within the Milky Way. It was once thought to have been a galactic cluster (stars bound in gravitational association) but recent measurements by astronomers have determined the stars are just a chance alignment making them look like they are close to one another from our viewpoint.

The reclassification of the Coat Hanger from a cluster to an asterism is just one example of the evolving understanding of the view in to space.

A cosmic scavenger hunt is not your usual hunt because once you have found all these items you don’t really have them in possession as proof you have found them. But, you now know where they are and can return to them on any dark, cloudless night of the summer.

Next Star Guide: A total eclipse story.


Tony Berendsen
Tony is an Astronomer, Star Guide, Poet, past President of the Northern Nevada Science Coalition, and the Astronomical Society of Nevada. He has been passionate about astronomy since the gift of a telescope when he was 8 years old, which began his journey to become an Outreach Astronomer. Recently, Tony has focused on creating Poastromy (Astro-Poetry) to excite the imaginations of his guests during his astronomy presentations at the Dark Skies Cosmoarium at Northstar, and writing stories about space in his bimonthly column The Star Guide to help his readers understand their view of the Cosmos.