We can see more than 65 constellations through the course of the year in the northwest Washington skies. Some are big, some are small, some are bright and some are dim.
Constellations are pictures in the stars that cultures of old dreamed up as visual aides to help tell their stories, lore, mythology and such. They didn’t have a lot of books or DVDs back then so they used these dot-to-dot or star-to-star pictures to help spin the tales over the generations.
Most of the constellations and their stories in our heavens come from Greek and Roman mythology. We have bears and many other beasts, royalty, parts of sail ships and a compass among others.
But of all the constellations that are splashed across the heavens, there’s only one musical instrument. That’s Lyra the Lyre, which is the great-great-great grandfather of today’s harp.
This is a great time to see Lyra the Lyre because it’s nearly overhead high in the eastern sky. Lyra is a small but distinct constellation with a very bright star as one its members.
Vega is the third brightest nighttime star, about 25 light years or about 145 trillion miles away, and all you have to do to find it is to look for the brightest star you can see in the high eastern sky.
Unless you have super-duper light pollution issues you’ll also see that there’s a small parallelogram of much fainter stars hanging to the lower right of Vega.
That’s about all there is to the constellation Lyra. Maybe with a heaping helping of imagination you can see a little harp there. The stars that make up the parallelogram, Zeta 1 Lyrae, Delta 2 Lyrae, Sheliak and Sulafat are not part of any cluster.
They vary in distance from 154 light-years to more than 900 light-years away. The stars just happen to fall in just the right line of sight to make that parallelogram.
As with most constellations, there are several mythological tales about them. The one I like is the yarn about how Mercury, the messenger of the gods, was fooling around on a slow delivery day and invented the first harp using a tortoise shell and stringing it with dried cow guts.
Anyway he realized you could make beautiful music with the bovine strings. The trouble is that he had absolutely no musical talent so he gave it to Apollo, the god of the sun, as a birthday present.
Apollo was initially excited about his new musical toy but didn’t have the discipline to learn how to play it well so it started gathering dust. One day when Apollo’s son Orpheus discovered the harp, picked it up and immediately started making beautiful music.
His music was so wonderful that even wild animals came to listen to his playing and treetops would bend over to hear him. Even fire breathing dragons would be lulled to sleep by the soothing tones of Orpheus and his lyre.
Orpheus grew up and married the beautiful princess Eurydice. He commanded huge money for his concerts and had all the money and palaces anyone could ask for, but Eurydice was his greatest treasure by far. When Eurydice died from a snake bite. grief-stricken Orpheus went into seclusion for over a year.
When he finally resumed his playing, he was mobbed by young women at each performance. One night the mob got violent and a woman literally tore his head off and threw his body and his lyre into a nearby river.
Apollo and the rest of the gods buried him at the foot of Mount Olympus and placed his magical lyre up into the stars as the constellation we see today.
Get out your telescope and see if you can spot what’s known as the ring nebula in the constellation Lyra. It’s known formally by astronomers as M57, and it’s what’s called a planetary nebula, a dying star that’s blowing off the last shells of hydrogen and helium gas before it shrinks to a white dwarf.
If you have a halfway decent telescope and a really clear sky scan your scope about halfway between to two stars that make up the lower end of the parallelogram of Lyra and you’ll see what looks almost like a little smoke ring.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of the book, “Washington Starwatch,” available at bookstores and at his Web site www.lynchandthestars.com.
The Everett Astronomical Society welcomes new members at www.everettastro.org/