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Stars in your eyes

The Summer Triangle

Starmap of summer triangle

Looking EAST at about 10.00 pm on the 8th June or 10th July

The Summer Triangle is not a constellation, but a very important star pattern of the summer sky. It was used as a marker by the ancients to identify the time of the year. It contains some of the brightest stars in this section of sky. Vega, in Lyra, is the fifth brightest star in the night sky. Altair, in Aquila, is the eleventh brightest star. Deneb, in Cygnus, is the twentieth brightest star in the heavens.

Altair appears to shine only half as brightly as Vega and Deneb seems only one-third as bright as Vega. So at first glance, Vega appears to rule this section of the sky. In reality, however, a bit of celestial deception is at work here, for Vega appears to be very bright chiefly because of its nearness to us. Vega is 25 light-years away, so when you are looking at it, you are really seeing it as it was back in 1983. About an hour after dark in early June, the Summer Triangle�s bottom star, Altair, twinkles to the lower right of Vega, almost due east. A ruler held at an arm�s length spans the gap between these two stars.

There is no better time than now to observe the beautiful summer Milky Way. With a good pair of binoculars or a telescope you should be able to see this great swathe of sparkling stars known as the Milky Way passing between Vega and Altair. Deneb is bobbing in the middle of this river of stars that meanders across the heavens.

The Summer Triangle will be in the sky for several months. Watch it move across the sky as summer changes into autumn.

Stuff of legends

There have been stories, myths and legends told about the Milky Way in many different cultures. One such story involves a rather sad Japanese legend.

The star Vega was Orihime, who produced brilliantly coloured fabrics. Across the �Heavenly River� (the Milky Way) the star Altair was the cowherd Kengyu. After meeting each other they received divine permission to marry, whereupon both gave up their jobs. This angered the gods who separated them and sent them back to their original occupations of fabric maker and cowherd on opposite sides of the heavenly river. However, the couple received permission from the gods to get together for one night each year.

That special night is July 7 � but only if the sky is clear!

As a result, the evening of July 7 has evolved into a young people�s holiday in Japan called Tanabata. Prayers are offered for clear skies so that Orihime and Kengyu, the star-crossed lovers, can be reunited. One popular Tanabata custom is to write your wishes on a piece of paper, and then hang that piece of paper on a specially erected bamboo tree, in the hope that the wishes come true.

JG our resident astronomer