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"The muse is upon me… bring me a small lyre!" – Caesar (via Dom DeLuise)
I have come to the conclusion that the constellation Lyra is my favorite, as it has all of the qualities one looks for in a celestial marker for a student of astronomy history, an amateur astronomer, and a part-time musician (well, drummer). Within its defined borders reside a famed double-double star system, a planetary nebula, a small globular cluster, at least one reasonable galaxy, one of the brightest stars in our night sky, a near-perfect parallelogram (if these were brighter stars, they would rival the Belt of Orion in geometric significance to terrestrial observers), one corner of the largest asterism in the night sky (the so-named Summer Triangle), and a host of other stars and dimmer objects (including even a few comets right now). This great variety of objects all lie in a small piece of property just off the band of the Milky Way and, during the summer, they are all ideally suited to near-zenith or at-zenith observing.
For our overture, we begin with the history of this mythic instrument. Lyra has most oft been associated with the famed musician of olde Orpheus, where Orpheus' lyre was disposed of in a river not long after Orpheus himself was disposed of by maenads despite Orpheus giving the performance of his life (or for his life as the case may have been, as his playing reportedly kept rocks and ï¿¼sticks at distance, requiring the maenads to forego accouterments and pluck Orpheus apart with their own hands). Zeus, with his ever-present eye for collector's items, ordered the lyre placed in the heavens along with the eagle that recovered it (and some old drawings of the constellation still include a bird of some kind in the rendering).
The show continues with the frame of the lyre itself, rendered in the opening image as a parallelogram topped by a "T." When I see the constellation, I don't see the "T" as much as I see an additional triangle composed of Vega, a Lyr (a double-star that connects the triangle to the parallelogram), and 1a/2a Lyr (far left of the image above, connected by the red line). Now then, 1a/2a Lyr is a sight to behold in a telescope, as it is not one star, but instead a pair of binaries, meaning four stars total that resolve nicely under reasonable magnification (it is reported that, under ideal conditions, the two pairs themselves can be split naked eye). This famed "double-double" star is shown below in an image from the Harrison Telescopes website.
Vega is the fifth brightest star in the Night Sky (making it the sixth brightest star in our sky) and is the second star to appear during the summer months after Arcturus. During June and July, Vega first appears high in the North-Eastern Sky and is obvious to anyone waiting at Darling Hill for their eyes to adjust after sunset. This makes Vega an easy marker for anyone learning the Summer constellations, which then makes Lyra an easy constellation to get under one's belt at the same time. The parallelogram (where one might imagine the plucked strings of the lyre to be) is oriented nearly North-South and runs along the neck of Cygnus the Swan, a Constellation embedded well into the river of stars that make up the Milky Way.
With the constellation of Lyra identified from its two prominent geometric themes, the search for the subtle tones in this constellation can continue. After M13 in Hercules and the famous M31, the object I learned to identify from the relative positions of stars was M57, the Ring Nebula. M57 sits like a tuning knob at the base of Lyra, almost centrally located between the binary star Sheliak and Sulafat. While far from the brightest object in the night sky, the Ring jumps out immediately even under low-power binoculars as something clearly not a pinpoint of light. New scope owners looking to find anything(!) in their scope are well-advised to consider M57 as a target for low-magnification observing, as the appearance of Sheliak and Sulafat in an eyepiece help to set bright boundary conditions between which to scan for the nebulous ring. On ideally clear and steady nights, the central star of the Ring is visible, although this can be a heroic undertaking for even seasoned pros. A comparison of what Hubble sees and what you'll likely see is provided on the previous page.
Containing the Ring Nebula would be enough for any constellation to be noteworthy to an amateur astronomer, but Lyra is famous as being a host to yet another Messier object in the form of M56, captured above-right by Stu Forster in July of 2010. This small globular cluster has been tagged at 13.7 billion years of age and can be found most easily by drawing a straight line between Sulafat and Alberio (the head of Cygnus the swan) and scanning the midpoint with larger-aperture binoculars or a small telescope.
For those listening most intently to the orchestrations of this constellation, the irregular galaxy NGC 6745 is just visible in medium-sized telescopes (shown above from Hubble). NGC 6745 is decidedly less J. S. Bach and decidedly more John Cage, as 6745 is actually three galaxies in the process of a violent dance. Like a famous Big Band moving through a town of jazz combos, the largest galaxy is pulling stars from the two smaller galaxies, populating itself at the expense of the disrupted musicians.
There are even themes implied but not heard that enhance the complexities of Lyra. To date, over 13 exoplanets have been discovered in Lyra, at least three of which are attributed to the position of the Kepler Mission observing envelop just beyond Cygnus (see the image above, which shows Kepler frames just to the edge of Lyra).
– Happy Hunting, Damian
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The Constellations, for all of their mythological, mystical, and ceremonial significance throughout human history, are also the bases for much of the scientific discovery (the Zodiac was a calendar long before it was ever used to identify the other kind of dates, and the backdrop of the unchanging Heavens served as the guide against which the motions of the planets were first tracked) that fueled our understanding of the universe before Edwin Hubble first exposed its true vastness by identifying the "Andromeda Nebula" as, in fact, a galaxy far outside of the Milky Way. The constellations have also served in a far more pragmatic capacity throughout human history as seasonal sign posts, simply marking times and locations for those on land and sea. Perhaps the most famous example of this in American History is the use of the Big Dipper as the marker by freed slaves traveling North along the Underground Railroad. The song "Follow the Drinkin' Gourd" is not simply a series of verses, but is instead a set of instructions, with the "Drinkin' Gourd" being the Big Dipper, the most easily recognizable asterism in the Northern Hemisphere (amateur astronomer or not) and pointer (by drawing an arrow from Merak to Dubhe) to the North Star Polaris, itself the most famous star of the Little Dipper (also known as Ursa Minor), an otherwise somewhat unimpressive constellation (certainly not as prominent in the North as the Big Dipper or the Cassiopeia "W" and, therefore, not as useful a sign post).
The Little Dipper is not the most prominent constellation in the Night Sky, but it serves as an important terrestrial marker because it includes Polaris among its member stars. Just as the Big Dipper is a prominent asterism that directs you to the Little Dipper, the Summer constellation Scorpius (which has been recognized specifically as a scorpion by many cultures for several millennia) can draw you to a slightly less prominent constellation to its West that is a sign post to a far more impressive marker than Polaris.
Sagittarius is an astronomy instructor's dream constellation, as it wraps up a number of interesting topics of discussion in one easy-to-find location. To begin, the Centaur, a half-human/half-horse hybrid, is the perfect bridge between the fantastical world of mythology in all of its seeming ridiculousness and, well, the shining example of what might even be ridiculously possible as scientists learn more about DNA and biological engineering (as of this past May, we now can make monkeys that glow in the dark. That's right, in the dark).
Second, Sagittarius provides its viewer another shining example of the difference between a constellation and an asterism. A constellation is, simply, a specific grouping of stars that everyone has agreed are, in fact, assigned to that particular constellation. This circular definition was finally laid flat by the International Astronomical Union in its defining of Constellation Boundaries, solidifying star groupings that go as far back as antiquity and as far forward as 1763 (the exploration of the Southern Hemisphere was not limited to the land and the sea). An asterism is, simply, a convenient grouping of stars that are NOT one of the 88 Official Constellations, with some asterisms being only fragments of a full Constellation (such as the Big Dipper, the most famous asterism in the Constellation Ursa Major) and some asterisms composed of parts of multiple Constellations (such as the Summer Triangle, composed of the stars Deneb (Cygnus), Altair (Aquila), and Vega (Lyra). At our latitude (Syracuse and Tully), we cannot even see the entire Constellation of Sagittarius, but have an excellent view during the Summer of one of the most modern of conveniences in the form of a Tea Pot (see below). We may seem a little ridiculous pointing out the tea pot, short and stout, with its handle (on the left or to the West) and its spout (on the right or to the East) at Darling Hill on a dark night, but you will not forget this asterism after it jumps out at you the first time. An important thing to remember is that any grouping of stars in the sky that helps YOU find what you are looking for is as significant an asterism as one you might find in any book. If an otherwise unlabeled grouping jumps out at you that helps you find your place in the Night Sky, put those informal naming rights to good use.
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Third, the billowing steam from the spout of this tea pot marks a most important location to all 100 billion or more stars in our galaxy. The small darkened oval in the picture above marks the exact location of the center of the Milky Way galaxy (the tiny, fuzzy spec at its middle), meaning we are looking into the most dense region of the galaxy when we set our gazes at this region. Unfortunately, the city lights from Cortland wash the density of the Milky Way band at our South when we observe in Tully, although the full band of the Milky Way is prominent above us during the Summer.
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Fourth, because we are looking into the heart of the Milky Way when we see the spout of the tea pot (as the image at right tries to show), we are looking into the densest region of stars we can see from Earth. As a result, this tea pot marks the location of a variety of Messier Objects and fainter nebulae far more numerous than even the largest variety pack the other Celestial Seasonings (pardon the tea pun) has to offer. The Trifid Nebula (M20), Lagoon Nebula (M8), Sagittarius Cluster (M22), Omega Nebula (M17), Black Swan Nebula (M18), M25, M23, M55, M54, M70, M28, M21, and M75 all reside within the Sagittarius boundary, while M6, M7, M16, and a host of other deep sky objects surround its borders in neighboring Scorpius, Ophiuchus, and Serpens Cauda.
When we observe during the Summer, I often recommend to new visitors with binoculars to simply point to the South, aim for the tea pot, and slowly scan. If your binoculars or telescope are anywhere near focused, you are guaranteed to find something within your field of view.
Mildly thirsty just thinking about it,