Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Aquila, the Eagle

There are 88 constellations covering the entire northern and southern sky.
Aquila, the Eagle: Aquila glides on outstretched wings through the glowing band of the Milky Way. Look for it high in the south in late summer.

The brightest star in Aquila is a white star about 16 light-years from Earth called Altair, the Arabic word for eagle. Altair is the southern point of a pattern of three bright stars called the Summer Triangle. Deneb, in the constellation Cygnus, forms the triangle's northeastern point. Vega, in Lyra, the harp, is in the northwest. Altair is nice and bright and easy to find right up to the beginning of winter.

Cygnus, the Swan: The brightest stars of Cygnus form a cross, so the swan is also known as the Northern Cross. Find it soaring high overhead during late summer evenings.

The constellation's brightest star is Deneb, an Arabic word that means "the tail." Deneb the tail of the swan, marks the top of the cross. The swan's outstretched wings form the horizontal bar of the cross, while the head of the swan, a double star called Albireo is the bottom of the cross.

Although it lies about 1,500 light years from Earth, Deneb shines brightly in our night sky because it's a white supergiant, a star that's much larger, hotter, and brighter than the Sun. Deneb is the northeastern point of a star pattern called the Summer Triangle.

If you use binoculars to scan the area between the two bright stars that define the swan's eastern wing, you'll see the remnant of a supernova a faint, incomplete ring of light called the Cygnus Loop.

Lyra, the Harp: It's easy to find Lyra, the harp, by first finding Vega one of the brightest stars in Earth's night sky. Look for Vega high overhead in mid-summer. Lyra looks like a small, lopsided square, with Vega just beside one of the corners of the square.