Favorite Star Patterns

The Teapot guides you to the galactic center

Labeled constellations and asterism on a green-tinted nightsky with bushes in lower left corner.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Kannan A in Singapore captured this photo of the constellation Sagittarius, with its Teapot asterism, on May 20, 2021. Thank you, Kannan A! August, and into early September, are great times to view the Teapot in Sagittarius. It’s easy to spot if you have a dark sky. And it points the way toward the center of our Milky Way galaxy.

What is the Teapot?

The constellation of Sagittarius is supposed to be a centaur. That’s a mythical half man/half horse creature, carrying a bow and arrow. Good luck spotting the centaur in the stars!

But these same stars also make up what skywatchers call the Teapot in Sagittarius. And the Teapot is simple to spot. The Teapot is an asterism in the western part of the constellation.

It’s best viewed during the evening hours from about July to September. Best of all, when you’re looking toward the Teapot, you’re also looking toward the center of our Milky Way galaxy.

How to spot the Teapot

Unlike many star patterns, the Teapot actually looks like the object for which it’s named. The Teapot has a handle, spout and lid like a traditional teapot. Head to a dark rural location for your best views of this Milky Way region.

Because the sun passes in front of Sagittarius from about December 18 to January 20, the Teapot isn’t visible then. However, about half a year later – on July 1 – the Teapot climbs to its highest point for the night around midnight (1 a.m. daylight saving time or DST), when it appears due south as seen from the Northern Hemisphere or due north as seen from the Southern Hemisphere.

As seen from our mid-northern latitudes, the Teapot rises in the southeast about three hours before it climbs to its highest point. The Teapot sets in the southwest about three hours afterward.

The Teapot returns to the same place in the sky about four minutes earlier with each passing day, or two hours earlier with each passing month. On August 1, the Teapot climbs to its highest point around 10 p.m. (11 p.m. DST). On September 1, it climbs highest around 8 p.m. (9 p.m. DST). On October 1, it’s highest around 6 p.m. (7 p.m. DST).

Another noteworthy point lies in this direction in space, the point at which the sun shines on the December solstice around December 21 each year.

Star chart of Scorpius and Teapot in Sagittarius with star Antares and point of galactic center marked.
The center of the galaxy is located between the Tail of Scorpius and the Teapot of Sagittarius. In a dark sky, you can see clouds of “steam” ascending from the Teapot’s spout in this region. Really, they are stars in our Milky Way galaxy. Chart via Astro Bob.

The center of our Milky Way

Once you’ve found the Teapot, assuming you have a dark sky, you can see “steam” billowing out of the spout. Gaze into the midst of this “steam” – into the thickest part of it – and you’ll be gazing toward the center of our Milky Way galaxy.

The center of the galaxy is some 30,000 light-years away. We can’t see directly into it, because this region is shrouded by dust and gas clouds. But studies of astronomers have shown that, when we look in this direction, we’re looking toward the supermassive black hole located at our galaxy’s heart. This black hole has some 4 million times our sun’s mass. It’s known as Sagittarius A*.

Now sweep the area around the Teapot with binoculars or a telescope. You’ll see many faint fuzzy objects pop into view. They’re star clusters and nebulae (gas clouds) located in the disk of our galaxy, in the direction toward the galaxy’s center.

The Milky Way with labels of clusters and nebulae over tall, ruined stone tower.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Miguel Sala at the Ruins of Ares Castle in Teruel, Spain, captured this photo of the Milky Way on July 10, 2021. Notice near the center of the photo that he’s marked the direction of the star-rich center of our galaxy. When we look in this direction, we’re looking toward a sky crowded with star clusters and nebulae. The famous Teapot in Sagittarius – a visual guide to the galaxy’s center – is also in this direction (and on the left side of this photo). Thank you, Miguel!
Star chart with Teapot, galactic equator, ecliptic, galactic center and winter solstice marked.
To see the Teapot from Earth’s Northern Hemisphere, look southward on a July, August or September evening. To see it from Earth’s Southern Hemisphere, look northward – closer to overhead – and turn the chart upside-down. Want a more exact location for Sagittarius? Try Stellarium, which will let you set a date and time from your exact location on the globe.

Bottom line: When you’re looking at the famous asterism of the Teapot in Sagittarius, you’re looking toward the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

August 7, 2021
Favorite Star Patterns

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Bruce McClure

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