Into the Heart of the Scorpion

Here we peer into the heart of Scorpius, to a place where the sky is painted with pastel hues unlike anywhere else in the heavens.

The yellow star at bottom is Antares, the cool supergiant star that marks the heart of the Scorpion. To the right is Messier 4, a globular cluster of thousands of stars. Wrapping the entire field are shrouds of dust, reflecting the yellow light of Antares and the blue light of hotter stars above, such as Rho Ophiuchi at top right. Glowing hydrogen gas clouds add the magenta hues.

The remarkable feature of this field are the dark fingers, clouds of dark interstellar stardust glowing with a dim yellowy-brown hue. In places the clouds become more opaque and intense, blocking any light from background stars. Those clouds must be close by in our galactic spiral arm because few stars lie between us and their dark masses. Estimates put them about 400 light years away.

The entire region is a busy factory of star making, one of the closest to our Sun. Chances are our solar system formed in a similar star factory 5 billion years ago, one that has long since dissolved away and dispersed around the Galaxy.

Like the previous shot, this is a Canon 7D/135mm telephoto image in a stack of six 2-minute exposures, taken from Chile in early May. I find it remarkable that with digital cameras just 2-minute exposures not only bring out the dark nebulas, but actually show them with colour and tonality. In the old days, film shots 20 minutes long only ever showed them as a mass of underexposed and featureless black.

— Alan, June 16, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer

Off the Stinger Stars of Scorpius

Off the tail of Scorpius lies one of the great starry regions of the Milky Way. From southern Canada the Scorpion’s Tail barely clears our horizon at this time of year, on June nights. But from farther south, Scorpius crawls high into the sky — and the sky actually gets dark at solstice, so stargazers can see the starclouds of Scorpius in all their glory.

At right, the blue stars mark the “stinger” at the end of the Scorpion’s tail. The brightest one, called Shaula, or Lambda Scorpii, is a hot blue giant star some 10,000 times more luminous than our own modest Sun. It is also a triple star, with another luminous blue star orbiting it, plus a third odd mystery star thought to be either a neutron star or perhaps a young proto-object still in the process of forming a proper “main-sequence” normal star.

To the left lie two prominent clusters of stars: at top the Butterfly Cluster (a.k.a. Messier 6), a bright group of stars sitting amid a dark bay of dust. Below it, almost lost in the stars, is Ptolemy’s Cluster (a.k.a. Messier 7), that is an obvious sight to the unaided eye – so obvious the Greek astronomer Ptolemy catalogued it in 130 AD. Several other star clusters pepper the field.

This telephoto lens shot frames the field as binoculars would show it. I took this from Chile in early May, using the Canon 7D and 135mm lens, for a stack of six 2-minute exposures at f/2.8 and ISO 1250.

— Alan, June 16, 2011 / Image © 2011 Alan Dyer