A celestial swan song
There are all kinds of celestial characters among the constellations and all of them have stories dreamed up by people over the eons. That’s certainly the case with the constellation Cygnus the Swan. Without too much of a stretch it really resembles a swan in the high early evening southwest Marshall sky.
The best way to spot the celestial swan is to first locate the “Summer Triangle,” one of the handiest tools we have for finding your way around the summer and early autumn evening sky. It’s so easy to see! Just look in the high southwest sky for the three brightest stars and that’s it. (Just make sure you don’t use the super bright “star” in the low southwest sky as one of the stars because that’s actually the planet Jupiter.) Each of the three stars of the triangle is the brightest star in their respective constellations.
The highest star at the top of the Summer Triangle, Deneb is a huge luminous star that’s at least 1,600 light-years away, with just one light-year equaling nearly 6 trillion miles! Before you hunt down the rest of swan, it’s actually easier at first to see Cygnus by its nickname, the “Northern Cross.” Most of the stars in Cygnus also outline a giant nearly upright cross. Deneb is at the head of the cross. just below Deneb, look for three moderately bright stars lined up horizontally that depict the cross piece of the cross. Look a little farther down from the cross piece and you’ll see Albireo, a moderately bright star that marks the foot of the cross. By the way, take a small telescope and have a look at Albireo. You’ll see that it’s not one star but a gorgeous, colorful double star. One of the stars is a distinct blue and the other a pale orange, with both stars shining away at nearly 400 light-years away.
Once you see the Northern Cross it’s a cinch to see the entire swan. The bright star Deneb marks the tail of Cygnus and Albireo marks the head of big bird. Then all you have to do is look for a fainter star to the upper right of the right side of the crosspiece and another faint star to the upper left of the left side of the crosspiece. Those two faint stars just off the crosspiece turn the crosspiece into an arc that outlines the giant wingspan of Cygnus. The celestial swan appears to be making a swan dive toward the horizon!
The Greek mythology story of Cygnus also involves a swan dive but a sad one at that! Phaethon was the restless teenage son of Apollo, the god of the sun, one of the most important gods of Mount Olympus. It was his job to pilot a giant glass chariot containing the sun across the sky day after day, pulled by a fleet of flying white horses. Phaethon idolized his dad and dreamed of the that he would succeed his Dad and take the reins of the great solar chariot. Phaethon forever begged his Father to let him try his skills at piloting the sun chariot but Apollo forbid it. Phaethon grudgingly obeyed but as he advanced in his teenage years temptation got the best of him!
Phaethon awoke well before dawn one morning while was Apollo was still sleeping. Phaethon realized that this was his chance! He entered the hanger of the great glass chariot with the sun brilliantly lit up inside of it. He climbed up in front, grabbed the reins, cracked the whip bellowed out a giddy up! to the flying horses. Quicker than expected he was airborne!
At first he wasn’t too bad at flying the sun chariot but all too quickly he got careless and reckless. Phaethon was on thrill ride, zigzagging horses and chariot and gradually losing control. In a matter of seconds, the chariot was earthbound headed for a horrible crash. From Mount Olympus Zeus, the king of the god saw what was happening and had to take immediate action. He had no idea who was at the controls. He for sure knew it wasn’t Apollo but figured some chariot thief was clutching the reins. As loud as he could Zeus shouted down to Apollo and tried to wake him up out of his slumber. Then the king of the gods shot a lightning bolt at Phaethon, spearing him out of the driver’s seat and on the way to a fatal plunge. Meanwhile Apollo, using the winged shoes of the God Mercury, flew up to the chariot and quickly brought it under control.
Poor Phaethon swan-dived to his death into the river Po. When his body finally resurfaced, the gods of Mount Olympus recognized the great tragedy they had just witnessed. In order to comfort Apollo, who was completely overcome by grief, Phaethon’s remains were instantly and magically transformed into the beautiful constellation we see today as Cygnus the swan. I hope they meant for the celestial swan to be a beautiful memorial for Phaethon, and not an everlasting reminder of how he met his demise that fateful morning.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is also the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and at adventurepublications.net.