Skywatch: High-flying sweet music in the stars

16 July 2023

It’s certainly not one of the most prominent constellations, but Lyra the Harp is a distinctive one with a super bright star. Vega is the third-brightest nighttime star seen around Minnesota and western Wisconin. This is a super easy time of year to locate Vega and the constellation Lyra in the early evening sky. Just look straight up.

(Mike Lynch)

Just after evening twilight, look for Vega, the brightest star in the 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. You may see Lyra as a little harp with your imagination on overdrive. Good luck with that!

Astronomically, it may appear that the stars that make up the parallelogram are close celestial neighbors 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 it being a relatively close neighbor in our Milky Way. It’s only 145 trillion miles away; 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 light travels in a year. That works out to be about 5.8 trillion miles, so Vega is 25 light years away. It also means that the light you see from that star tonight has traveled a quarter of a century to get here.

Have you ever wondered just where this world is going? Just look at Vega. That’s the general direction our sun, the solar system, and all of us travel 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 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 is moving slower 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. 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 has nothing to do with the distant solar system. It’s a dying star 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 the Ring Nebula with my astrophotography setup to show you what to expect. You won’t see the colors captured in the time exposure photo, but you might see a slight bluish tint to M57 through your scope.

Ring Nebula (Mike Lynch)

As with most constellations, there are several mythological tales about them. I like 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 tortoiseshell 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 his organic harp to Apollo, the god of the sun, as a birthday present.

As excited as he was about his gift, Apollo was so busy guiding the sun across the sky that he didn’t have time to learn how to play it. So Apollo re-gifted it to his son, Orpheus, who was a natural! As soon as he picked it up, Orpheus started making beautiful music.

His music was so wonderful that 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. He married the beautiful Princess Eurydice and had a great life. He went on tour and commanded vast amounts of money for his concerts. He had all the money and palaces anyone could ask for, but Eurydice was his greatest treasure. 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 women 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. As usual, he refused all of their advances. The mob got so violent that a woman tore his head off and threw his body and lyre into a nearby river. Talk about a tough crowd!

Apollo and the rest of the gods recovered what was left of Orpheus 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 Happening this week

(Mike Lynch)

This Thursday, July 20, they’ll be a spectacular close celestial hugging in the late evening low western twilight sky. The new crescent moon and bright planet Venus will really put on a show! Also close by will be the dimmer but distinctly reddish Mars, and the moderately bright star Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo the Lion. Don’t miss this conjunction!

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and Mike is available for private star parties. You can contact him at [email protected].

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