Around 9 p.m. (daylight savings time) in early September, one of the night sky’s crown jewels shines high overhead (as seen from mid-northern latitudes). This is the star Vega, a blue-white luminary that is one of the first stars you see as twilight deepens.
Vega is the brightest star in the constellation Lyra the Harp, its other main stars marking a family compact and easily recognized rectangle.
Vega blazes next to one corner of this rectangle. Facing south you will see these stars right below brilliant Vega.
If you have a telescope, of say, 3" aperture or bigger, there’s some interesting deep sky sights in this tangle of stars.
One of them is what I like to call the "Donut." It’s more commonly called the Ring Nebula, or "M57" in the Messier catalog of most of the more easily seen deep sky sights, listing nebulae, galaxies and star clusters.
In a small telescope at medium magnification you will see little else than a small, round, gray hazy spot. Higher magnification will reveal the "donut" shape. Telescopes of larger size, such as with a 6" mirror or greater, will show it better.
The nebula is a broad expanse of glowing, ionized gas that has been ejected from a red giant star late in the star’s "life." The whole nebulous shell is a light year across; it takes light a whole year to pass from one side to the next. M57 is around 2,000 light years from Earth.
It’s really easy to find. M57 is smack dab between the two bottom stars of that rectangle, as viewed facing south on September evenings.
Then there’s Epsilon Lyrae, which a small telescope quickly reveals is a double star. Closer inspection, with higher magnification and steady atmosphere shows the double is actually a quadruple- both components are themselves, close double stars!
Imagine being on a planet in that star system- with not one but four "suns" in the sky.
Another star of wonder in Lyra is a deep red star, T Lyrae. This star varies in magnitude. You need a detailed star atlas showing the faint stars visible in a telescope to track it down. I "star hop" starting from Vega, to locate it. Rather dim and lost among many faint stars, it takes some practice to find it but the star is unmistakable due to its unusual, rich rouge shade.
The most impressive star in Lyra, however, has to be Vega, which can be enjoyed with eyes alone. Vega is 0.03 magnitude, among the night sky’s brightest, and is extra spectacular in binoculars and especially a telescope, which adds to the brightness. It’s easy to compare it to a diamond.
Vega is just over 25 light years distant. The star spins so fast, the star would appear squat if you were close enough to tell. In your telescope, you won’t see more than a magnificent point of light.
Last quarter Moon is on September 2.
Keep looking up!
— Peter Becker is Managing Editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, PA. Notes are welcome at email@example.com. Please mention in what newspaper or web site you read this column.