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Night Sky

August 2010

—Charlie Christmann

Warm summer nights are a great time to go outside and look at the night sky. It’s time to get reacquainted with the bright stars of summer.

The Summer Triangle

Let’s look at the stars making up the Summer Triangle. This formation consists of three of the brightest stars in the August night sky: Deneb, Altar, and Vega. While the triangle is not an official constellation, it is a spectacularly large asterism. Deneb is the dimmest of these first magnitude stars and is the brightest star in the constellation Cygnus, the Swan. The exact distance to Deneb is in dispute, but estimates range from about 1,500 light-years to 7,000 light-years. The best estimate of 3,230 light-years comes from Hipparcos Space Astrometry Mission. At any of these distances, this is one of the most distant stars visible with the naked eye. Viewed from Earth, this is the twentieth brightest star in the sky.

The name Deneb is Arabic Al Dhanab al Dajajah meaning “tail of the hen.” In some earlier version of this constellation, it was seen as a chicken. Most of the brighter stars have had many other names throughout history. Deneb has been called Uropygium, meaning the backside of a bird where feathers grow, and, oddly, the “Pope’s nose.”

The Summer Triangle’s second brightest star is Altair, the brightest star in the constellation Aquila the Eagle and the twelfth brightest star in the night sky. You know you have found Altair if you see a star on either side of it. The two stars flanking Altair are called Tarazed and Alshain.

Altair is visualized as the head or neck of an eagle with outstretched wings. The wings are formed by the Theta and Zeta stars of the constellation Aquila the Eagle, with the tail being Lambda. Once you have this vision in your head, you can see Aquila the Eagle flying eastward through the Milky Way, hungrily chasing the tiny constellation Delphinus, the Dolphin.

Altair is Arabic in origin and has the same meaning as the name of the constellation Aquila in Latin: ‘eagle.’ In classical mythology, Aquila was an eagle favored by Zeus. He has a part in several myths, including the abduction of Ganymede, who is carried off to Mount Olympus on Zeus’s command to become the cupbearer to the gods. In another myth, Aquila is the eagle that torments Prometheus and is shot with a poisoned arrow by Hercules.

Vega, the brightest of the three triangle stars, is easily recognizable for its brilliance and blue-white color. You should also be able to find its constellation Lyra, the harp. This small, compact constellation consists primarily of Vega and four fainter stars in the form of a parallelogram.

Lyra is said to be the harp played by the legendary Greek musician Orpheus. It’s said that when Orpheus played this harp, neither god nor moral could turn away. In Japan, Vega is sometimes called Orihime, a princess or goddess. She falls in love with a mortal, Hikoboshi, represented by the star Altair. But when Orihime’s father found out about the love affair, he forbids Orihime to be seen with a mere mortal. In the end, father relents and lets the two meet, but only once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month. The rest of the year they are separated by the Celestial River, the Milky Way. Some years, Hikoboshi’s annual trip across the Celestial River is so dangerous, he is unable to see his true love. In those years, it is Tanabata’s tears, raindrops that fall over Japan.

Perseids

The Perseid meteor peaks on August 12. There should be good viewing with the Moon only three days old.

The Planets and Moon

• Mercury can be located low in the western sky early in the month about one hour after sunset. Mercury reaches its highest point in the sky on the 7th. Look 18 degrees to the lower right of Venus that day, with binoculars, about thirty minutes after sunset to see Mercury.

• Venus continues to shine brightly in the west after sunset. Look for a three-planet conjunction (Venus, Mars, Saturn) on the 7th. Actually, this will be a great show most of the month. The waxing crescent Moon joins Venus in a conjunction on the 12th. Look carefully 15 minutes after sunset for a great view.

• Mars is near Venus most of the month in the west after sunset. On the 7th, look with binoculars five degrees to the upper left of Venus an hour after sunset.

• Jupiter rises in the east around 10:30 early in the month, to 9:30 late in the month.

• Look for Saturn north of Venus and Mars after sunset. On the 7th, find Saturn less than three degrees above Venus one hour after sunset.

• The Moon is new on the 9th and full on the 24th.

 

     

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