High flying sweet music in the stars
It’s certainly not one of the largest constellations, but Lyra the Harp is very distinctive and also possesses a super bright star. It’s Vega, the third brightest nighttime star we can see from southwest Minnesota. This is a super easy time of the year to locate Vega and Lyra in the early evening sky. Just look straight up!
Just after evening twilight, look for Vega, the brightest star you can see in the very high eastern sky near the overhead zenith. Unless you have a real problem with light pollution you should be able to see a small parallelogram of much fainter stars hanging to the lower right of Vega. That’s about all there is to the constellation Lyra. With your imagination on overdrive you may see Lyra as a little harp. Good luck with that!
It may appear that the stars that make up the parallelogram are part of the same star cluster but that’s not the case. The stars just happen to fall in the same general line of sight from Earth. Call it a stellar coincidence…or maybe not.
Vega’s extreme brightness is mainly due to being a relatively close neighbor in our Milky Way. It’s only 145 trillion miles away, and believe it not that’s considered close on a stellar scale. To handle beastly stellar distances astronomers tame them with light years. A light-year is the distance that light travels in a year’s time, about 5.8 trillion miles. In Vega’s case that works out to be 25 light- years. It also means that the light we see from that star tonight has been traveling a quarter century to get here.
Have you ever wondered where this world is going? Just look at Vega! That’s the general direction that our sun, the solar system, and all of us are traveling in space as we orbit around our Milky Way Galaxy. Our sun is just one of at least 200 billion fellow stars in a spiral shaped galaxy that spans 100,000 light-years in diameter. We’re headed in the general direction of Vega at a breakneck speed of just under 140 miles per second. Even though we are tearing along at half a million miles an hour, it will still take about 225 million years to make just one orbit around the center of our home galaxy. Vega isn’t moving quite as fast around the Milky Way, so in about 60,000 years we’ll pass by Vega, missing it by around 13 light- years.
If you have a halfway decent telescope, see if you can spot the Ring Nebula in the constellation Lyra. It’s known formally by astronomers as Messier Object 57, or M57 for short. Scan your scope about halfway between the 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. M57, more than 2,300 light-years away, is known as a planetary nebula, but it has nothing to do with a distant solar system. It’s actually a dying star that’s blowing off the last shells of hydrogen and helium gas before it shrinks to a white dwarf. That will happen to our sun in about 6 billion years. I took a picture of it with my astrophotography setup and I have it here to show you what to expect. You won’t see the colors that I have in the time exposure photo, but you might see a faint bluish tint to it through your scope.
As it is with most constellations, there are several mythological tales about Lyra. 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 out cow guts. I apologize if you’re eating breakfast right now! Mercury discovered you could make beautiful music with strings of cow innards. Mercury didn’t have any musical talents so he gave the organic harp to Apollo, the god of the sun as a birthday present.
Apollo was so busy guiding the sun across the sky though, so as excited as he was about his gift he didn’t have time to learn how to play it. So Apollo re-gifted it to his son Orpheus. He was a natural! As soon as he picked it up, Orpheus 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 to be a very handsome, talented man and married the beautiful princess Eurydice and had a great life. He went out on tour and commanded huge money for his concerts. He had all the money and palaces anyone could ask for, but Eurydice was his greatest treasure by far. That’s why Orpheus took it so hard when his beloved was bitten by a poisonous snake and died nearly instantly.
The grief-stricken Orpheus went into seclusion for over a year, but finally pulled himself together enough to pick up his harp and resume his beautiful music. When he went back on tour he was mobbed by his fans and now that he was single again, young woman were throwing themselves at him. He was in no mood to meet them. No one could replace Eurydice.
After one concert when he was sneaking out the back door of the stage, a mob of women attacked him and as usual, he refused all their advances. The mob got so violent that woman literally tore his head off and threw his body and his lyre into a nearby river. Talk about a tough crowd!
Apollo and the rest of the gods recovered what was left of Orpheus from the river and buried him at the foot of Mount Olympus. They then placed his magical lyre up into the stars as the constellation we see today. So just maybe if you’re star watching in the quiet countryside you may hear celestial tunes from it!
Celestial hugging this week: Early risers will be treated Thursday morning to a great conjunction between the waning crescent moon and the very bright planet Venus. They will appear to be almost touching!
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul and is author of the book, “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications available at bookstores at http://www.adventurepublications.net.