Constellation of the Month: Lyra
August’s evening skies are dominated by the Summer Triangle high in the south, made up of the three brightest stars in three different constellations, the stars Deneb in Cygnus, Altair in Aquila, and brilliant Vega in Lyra.
Vega is a magnitude 0 star, the fifth brightest star in the night sky, and the third brightest (after Sirius and Arcturus) visible to UK stargazers.
Look high in the south (almost directly overhead) in the late evenings in August and the very bright white star you’ll see is Vega. Look “down and left” of Vega and you’ll see the four other bright stars of Lyra in a rhombus shape.
Lyra represents the lyre of Orpheus, and it’s a great little constellation to observe through a telescope since, despite its diminutive size, is home to two Messier objects, M56 and M57.
Messier 56 (marked 2 above) is a loose globular cluster lying about 33000 light years away. It sits halfway along a line drawn between the “lowest” star of the lyre (the one furthest from Vega) and Albireo (beta Cygni). Through binoculars or a small telescope it looks just like a fuzzy star. You’ll need a pretty decent sized telescope (20cm+) to resolve individual stars.
Messier 57 (marked 1 above) is known as the Ring Nebula, and is one of the most-photographed of astronomical objects. It’s a planetary nebula, an expanding shell of gas that’s been puffed off by a giant red star in its death throes. Small scopes should show the elliptical shape but you’ll need a larger (20cm+) scope to see the hole in the middle and any features within the nebula. M57 is easy to find as it sits almost exactly half way between the two “lowest” stars of Lyra (the two furthest from Vega) beta and gamma Lyrae.