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The Harp of Heaven

For a little constellation, Lyra has big ideas! It has the commanding star of the summer sky, Vega, fifth brightest of all stars. It has a wondrous deep-sky object, M57, the Ring Nebula. It has its own meteor shower, the Lyrids which can be observed between April 20-22 each year. It has its own class of variable star, called the RR Lyrae stars. And Lyra is also the location for another fascinating variable, b Lyrae, a mysterious system that is an eclipsing binary with a possible black hole as one of its components. Epsilon Lyrae is a favorite telescopic object. It is the “double-double,” discernible to those with exceptional eyesight as a pair of stars; and with a small telescope, each can be resolved into a double, as well. A lesser pair of double stars also shines in Lyra, although the components are not quite so bright nor so closely spaced. They are S 2470 and S 2474.

Lyra is a small constellation, quite easily identified as it appears to consist of an equilateral triangle attached to a parallelogram. The brightest star, Vega, is one of the three stars, along with Deneb and Altair, that form the asterism of the Summer Triangle.

Photo by Conrad Jung.

The wonderful Ring Nebula, M57, can be found between Gamma- and Beta-Lyra, the two stars that form the side of the parallelogram opposite Vega.

Because of their circular appearance such rings are also called planetary nebula. They are very large, as much as a thousand times as large as our solar system. The very hot central star is responsible for the luminescence of the nebula.
Photo by Jim Scala


Lyra is also prominent in the history of astronomy. Vega was the first star to pose for its photograph, taken by Bond and Whipple a hundred-fifty years ago on July 16, 1850, at Harvard College Observatory. Vega was also among the first stars whose parallax was accurately determined, by F. G. Wilhelm Struve, father of the noted Otto Struve. Vega's role in future history is assured, as well, for it has been calculated that in something like 12,000 years, owing to precession of the equinoxes, Vega will assume the title of North Star.

Incidentally, the name Vega is properly pronounced as if it were spelled Wega, for it derives from the Arabic, meaning “Swooping Eagle of the Desert.”

Classical mythology links the lyre and the tortoise in the story of Mercury, who found a tortoise shell and toyed with it. He noticed the resonance when he tapped the shell, which gave him the idea to drill holes along opposite sides and lace these with linen threads. He used one each for the nine Muses. So was the lyre invented; and Mercury played enchanting music. On Olympus, home of the gods, Apollo beseeched Mercury to teach him also to play, and Mercury traded the lyre to Apollo for his caduceus, the staff that brought prosperity and wealth to its owner and gave him the power to fly. Mercury then became the swift messenger of the gods, enabled by the caduceus and his winged sandals. Apollo later gave the lyre to his son, Orpheus, who learned to play with such talent that he would soothe the wild beasts. He could charm even Pluto, king of the realm of the dead. But that is another story.

After the death of Orpheus (in that other story), Jupiter placed the lyre in the heavens, where it is high overhead, a jewel in the summer evening skies.

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