July: Swans, Scorpions, Lyres and Teapots

July 2010

Swans, Scorpions, Lyres and Teapots

By Calvin L. Chrisman

Warm summer nights offer opportunities to familiarize yourself with a mixture of imagined animal life, musical instruments and other objects in the night sky. Constellations that are prominent at this time represent swans, scorpions, lyres and teapots.

To spot some of these things, start by locating the Summer Triangle. Look high in the sky and a bit to the east of the meridian (an imaginary line running from north to south and passing directly overhead). You will see three bright stars that make up the Summer Triangle. Deneb will be the northernmost of the three representing the tail of Cygnus the Swan. In fact, Deneb means “tail” in Arabic. (The root “Deneb” is also found in the name of the star Denebola – the tail of the constellation Leo, the lion). Altair is the southernmost star in the triangle and Vega in Lyra, the Lyre, is to the east. Below Vega is the parallelogram of four stars that makes up the Lyre. This is one of the smallest constellations in the sky.

OK we have swans and lyres, what about scorpions and teapots? Next, look south. About twenty degrees above the horizon, you will see a very bright red star. This is the heart of Scorpius, the Scorpion. This is a readily identifiable constellation. If you follow its body down toward the horizon, at the base of the Scorpion’s body is a double star known as Zeta Scorpii. It is about fourth magnitude and should be visible before the Moon is up. Two stars, one an orange shade and the other white will be visible to those with sharp eyes and to anyone with binoculars. The color differences are subtle but perceptible. Scorpius is also rich in many kinds of star clusters and deep sky objects. Some can be seen only with telescopes, but many are visible and quite beautiful in binoculars. Move your binoculars over the constellation and see what you can find.

While you are looking in this direction, look low in the sky to the east (left) of Scorpius for the constellation Sagittarius. It too is recognizable, looking like a teapot tipping over to the right. Look carefully to see if you can see the teaspoon and lemon wedge that accompany it. Take time on a moonless night in a dark place to let your eyes fully adjust to the dark and look at the sky above the teapot. Boiling out of its spout is the Milky Way, our home galaxy. As you are looking in that direction, you are looking directly into the heart of the galaxy, the center of which contains a large black hole (no, you can’t see it – that’s why it’s called a black hole!).

One last thing to look for this month occurs on the evening of July 9th just after sunset. If it is clear, look to the west for the bright planet Venus. It will be very close (about one degree) to Regulus, the heart of Leo the lion. Leo’s sickle (main) may be lost in our summer haze, but the planet Mars will be above Venus and to its left and Denebola (remember Leo’s tail?) will be above Mars.

Clear Skies!

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