By Mike Lynch
There are a lot of celestial treasures among the constellations in the late summer Northwest sky. Star clusters, nebulae, double stars, and even whole other galaxies outside our Milky Way are visible with patience and optical aid, such as good binoculars or a telescope.
Four of the nicest jewels of the heavens right now are nearly overhead at the end of evening twilight, about 8:30.
The easiest one to see is the star Albireo, the second brightest star in the constellation Cygnus the Swan or the Northern Cross.
Face south and look directly overhead. The brightest star you see is Vega, the brightest star in the constellation Lyra the Harp. Vega is also the third brightest nighttime star we see in the Northwest.
Make a fist and extend at arm’s length. About two fists widths to the lower left of Vega look for the Northern Cross.
The moderately bright star at the foot of the diagonally orientated cross is Albireo.
To the naked eye, Albireo looks like any other star in the sky, but with even a pair of binoculars, you can see that not only is Albireo a double star, but a colorful twosome: One has a golden hue and the other is distinctly blue. The double stars of Albireo are about 430 light-years away, with just one light-year equaling nearly 6 trillion miles.
The second celestial gem high up in the southern sky is Messier object 13, better known as the great Hercules Cluster, one of the true wonders of the sky, residing in the faint constellation Hercules the Hero.
The best way to find that is to once again face south and find the bright star Vega. Look for a trapezoid of four faint stars. That trapezoid is pretty much the center of the Hercules constellation.
About a third of the way from the upper right to the lower right side of the trapezoid you’ll find the Hercules cluster.
You need a good pair of binoculars or a telescope to see what at first looks like a spherical fuzz ball. If you have strong enough optics and especially if you can see it from darker countryside skies you’ll see that it’s actually a cluster of many stars, known as a globular cluster.
This is the best one in our skies. Astronomers figure it’s about 25,000 light-years away, about 145,000 trillion miles. There may be up to a million stars crammed in an area a little more than 800 trillion miles wide.
The last celestial treasure to search for is also the most elusive: Messier object 57, the Ring Nebula. It actually looks like a ring and shows a slightly bluish tint.
The Ring Nebula lays in the constellation Lyra the Harp, between two of the four stars that make a little parallelogram outlining the celestial harp. Just keep scanning between the two stars that make up the bottom end of the parallelogram opposite the bright star Vega.
If your scope is powerful enough you may be able to resolve the ring.