Starwatch: To find Cygnus, look for the Northern Cross first

  • By Mike Lynch
  • Friday, September 20, 2013 1:04pm
  • Life

Among the 65 to 70 constellations seen in the Northwest, the biggest and brightest celestial bird is Cygnus the Swan, flying nearly overhead.

The brightest star at the tail of the high flying swan is Deneb, one of the stars of the Summer Triangle that takes up a major stretch of the high southeastern heavens at the start of evening.

The other Summer Triangle stars are Vega and Altair, the brightest stars in their respective constellations Lyra the Harp and Aquila the Eagle. Just look for the three brightest stars you can see high overhead and that’s it.

Even though we have a full harvest moon this week you should see the Summer Triangle without much trouble.

Facing directly south and gazing nearly overhead at the Summer Triangle, the star on the upper left corner of the triangle is Deneb. It’s the dimmest star in the triangle but by no means puny. It’s a fantastically huge star some 1,500 light-years away with one light-year equaling almost 6 trillion miles.

Deneb is so far away that the light we see from it tonight left that star about A.D. 500.

Cygnus the Swan contains within it a pattern of stars called the Northern Cross. In fact, it’s much easier to see the Northern Cross before looking for the Swan.

Deneb sits at the head of the cross and, if you’re facing south, the cross will be diagonally orientated and leaning to the left.

At the foot of the cross is the not so impressive star Albireo. With a small telescope you’ll see Albireo is not just one star, but a beautiful pair of stars, one gold and the other blue.

To expand on the Northern Cross and find the entire swan is easy; Just look for the stars at either end of the arms of the cross and turn them into the wings of Cygnus the Swan. Deneb becomes the tail of the giant swan and Albireo becomes the swan’s head.

According to Greek myths, Apollo, the god of the sun, was one of the head honchos of the gods on Mount Olympus. Every day he had the awesome responsibility of guiding the sun in its chariot across the sky.

Phaethon, one of Apollo’s many children, idolized his dad and very much wanted to eventually take over the reins of the sun chariot when Apollo retired.

One morning Apollo overslept and Phaethon realized that this was his chance. He handled the sun vehicle like a pro at first, but soon he got cocky and lost control.

A crash of celestial proportions was moments away. If the sun crashed the entire world would turn into a blaze of fire. From Mount Olympus Zeus saw what was happening and took immediate action.

Not recognizing Phaethon he concluded it was an enemy intruder at the reins. He frantically shouted down to Apollo for help, and then shot a lightning bolt at Phaethon, spearing him out of the driver’s seat and on the way to a fatal plunge.

Apollo, with all his might, leaped up into the seat of the chariot and got control just before the sun could crash.

Phaethon plunged into the river Po and died. Apollo and Zeus discovered who was shot out of the chariot, and as a lasting memorial, they magically transformed his body into the beautiful constellation we see today as Cygnus the Swan.

Mike Lynch is an astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations.” Check his website, www.lynchandthestars.com.

The Everett Astronomical Society: www.everettastro.org/.

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