Shoreless Seas, Stars Uncounted
A fantastical float down the Milky Way.
The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveler who would report them.
— J. R. R. Tolkien, “On fairy-Stories”
We journey down the Heavenly River, the Milky Way. As in the quote from Tolkien above, the “richness and strangeness” of this realm in the sky are so great they defy our attempts to describe them.
The fantastic Milky Way river. One of the major points of Tolkien’s essay is that the wonder at the heart of fantasy can sometimes be found even in its simplest stories, those usually considered to be aimed at children. But who would have thought that this wonder, or a large part of it, could also be found in the section of the Milky Way from Scutum to Sagittarius?
Do we have in the summer Milky Way “all manner of beasts and birds” as we do in Faerie (the realm at the heart of fairy-story)? Certainly. We have constellation beasts and birds galore—Scorpius (the scorpion), Sagittarius (half-man/half-horse), Serpens (the serpent), Delphinus (the dolphin), Vulpecula (the fox), Cygnus (the swan), Aquila (a soaring eagle), and Lyra (not just a lyre, but at one time, a stooping eagle or vulture). We also have a bevy of strange “beasts” from the “astrophysical zoo”—things like the variable stars Chi (χ) Cygni and Beta (β) Lyrae, and the visible remnants of the most bizarre stellar corpses, like the Dumbbell and Ring Nebulae, derived from solar-mass stars dying to become white dwarfs, and the more elusive Veil Nebula, derived from a massive star dying in a supernova to become a neutron star or black hole.
The summer Milky Way also has “stars uncounted” and, if not “shoreless seas,” at least the shoreless bank of a celestial river, for the edges of the Milky Way band fade off imperceptibly. Are there in the Milky Way joys and sorrows as sharp as swords? Well, with larger aperture telescopes there are innumerable blade-edge sharp images of the stars that incite joy in the observer. And you know in winter there’s a sword—Orion’s—as sharp as joys or sorrows.
Scutum to Sagittarius: a Milky Way river torrent of grandeur. Do we go over a kind of waterfall when we reach the Scutum Star Cloud with its foreground telescopic “avalanche of stars” (or spate of stars) called the star cluster Messier 11? Do we then pour down past the equilateral triangle formed by the Gamma Scuti Star Cloud, M16 (the Eagle Nebula), and M17 (the Omega Nebula)? And onward, through the intense bright “foam” of M24 (the Small Sagittarius Star Cloud), flanked by the open clusters M25 and M23, until we arrive at a vision of the broadly spread central bulge (or river delta?) of the Milky Way with M20 (the Trifid Nebula), M8 (the Lagoon Nebula), and the gorgeous Large Sagittarius Star Cloud? And don’t forget Sagittarius’s supreme globular cluster, M22, which hangs just upper left of the star at the top of the Sagittarius Teapot, and the pair of big naked-eye clusters levitating above Scorpius’s stinger, MG and M7.
River Anduin or path of souls? Tolkien’s fantasy river Anduin has a waterfall, Rauros. Downstream stand the grand cities Osgiliath and Minas Tirith. But maybe the Milky Way more closely resembles the path that dead souls take to their final destination near Antares as envisioned by some Native Americans. If the latter is true, then what do we make of Mars and Saturn passing through that high holy ground this year? (2016)
 Fred Schaaf, “Shoreless Seas, Stars Uncounted,” Sky and Telescope (132, 3, September, 2016, p. 45).