The Milky Way

Send questions to Heart of the Valley Astronomers

As the summer progresses we can see the most impressive object the Milky Way has to offer: an arm of the galaxy itself. Throughout antiquity, the Milky Way has fascinated viewers with it's ethereal light and imposing scale - extending all the way across the sky. Serving to articulate a link between Earth and the heavens, our home galaxy has been depicted in a multitude of ways to that end; from being a celestial river to a cosmic bridge.

A 19th century Finnish poet put it succinctly:

"They toiled and built a thousand years
In love's all powerful might;
And so the Milky Way was made -
A starry bridge of light...."

And that is only one description, open for all kinds of interpretation.

From a dark location like Mary's Peak, our galaxy can easily be seen extending from the constellations Cassiopeia & Perseus - all the way south to Sagittarius. As you look towards Sagittarius you are also seeing towards the center of the Milky Way, roughly 30,000 light-years away. The image at right shows the Milky Way if you were to look straight overhead in the late summer and early fall.

Close to a light polluted area? Then a good way to locate the galaxy is to first find the large "Summer Triangle" of the stars Vega, Deneb, and Altair. They are the three brightest stars you'll see rising in the east sky during the summer, with the Milky Way running along the bottom of it. The image at the bottom of the page shows the summer triangle.

The Milky Way represents a scene in which the best impressions are through a combination of naked eye, binocular, and telescope viewing. Looking with your own eyes yields a sight capturing the expanse of the galaxy arm that we reside in. Sweeping the arm with binoculars brings that path of light into a scale which brings out the deep patterns forming it. Then the telescope reveals the richness of stars, nebulae, and star clusters that are our astral neighbors.

Although it may seem impossible to convey it's physical image accurately to a picture, some astronomers have done precisely that. Using a mosaic of extremely wide-angle photographs, we can see an accurate depiction of the galaxy in a form that is accessible to those who want to understand more about the Milky Way.

The Summer Triangle