Tonight, look for one of the most beautiful celestial sights visible at this time of year. Look in a dark country sky, far away from the the glare of city lights. You’ll find a hazy pathway stretched across the sky. This band is the starlit trail of our own Milky Way galaxy. We in the N. Hemisphere look southward in late in the evening – toward the richest part of the Milky Way – to find a very small constellation called Scutum the Shield. It has only has four stars that make up the constellation outline. But it’s noticeable in a dark sky because the Milky Way is so rich here. Be sure to scan with your binoculars.
Scutum has a fascinating history. The Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius named it Scutum Sobiescianum, meaning the shield of Sobieski, in 1683. He named it for Jan III Sobieski, a Polish king who led his armies to victory in the Battle of Vienna. The constellation in charts of the era resembles the king’s coat of arms on his shield. Today, you still sometimes hear amateur astronomers refer to this part of the sky as Scutum Sobieski.
Scutum is one of two constellations named after real people. The other one is Coma Berenices, named for an Egyptian queen.
The Shield isn’t big, and it requires a dark sky to be seen, but – to those who find it in dark skies – it provides some very nice views with the unaided eye or binoculars. The very noticeable Teapot of Sagittarius is below Scutum. And the bright star Vega shines high above Scutum.
Sky chart of the constellation Scutum the Shield
Some famous deep-sky objects reside in this part of the sky, too. One is the Wild Duck Cluster, also known as M11. It’s an open star cluster – one of the densest ones ever found – containing some 3,000 stars.
Another open cluster in this part of the sky is M26, discovered by Charles Messier in 1764.
Bottom line: Look for the constellation Scutum the Shield. It’s located in a rich region of the Milky Way and requires a dark sky to be seen.