Oct 01

What’s Up in the Sky

What’s Up in the Sky – October, 2013

Eagles and Dolphins and Swans, Oh My!

If you are reading this, you probably know about the Summer Triangle. Vega, Deneb, and Altair make up this asterism which is almost directly overhead and visible all month. Let’s take a look at some of the mythology surrounding these constellations and then see how we can use them as guides to cool stuff.

Face south. Look up. Better yet, lie down on a lawn chair. You will see a triangle of stars standing on its point. The brightest, Vega (VEE-ga), is in the constellation Lyra (the Lyre), which appears as a small equilateral triangle attached to a parallelogram below it. The lyre, a small, stringed instrument like a little harp, was by some accounts, invented by the god Hermes. He gave it to his half-brother Apollo, who passed it along to Orpheus, his son. So talented on the instrument was Orpheus that he was able to use it to charm Pluto and the guardians of the underworld to allow his wife, Eurydice, the victim of a viper bite, to return with him to earth. Of course, there were conditions: he would have to walk ahead of her and was not look back until they had both returned to the upper world. You can probably guess how that turned out.

At the top left of the triangle is Deneb, the tail of Cygnus, the Swan, and at the bottom is Altair, in the constellation Aquilla, the Eagle. The swan is usually depicted as flying down the Milky Way toward the horizon while the eagle is seen as flying in the opposite direction.

According to legend, Aquilla was the bird of Zeus and when the king of the gods needed an errand run between heaven and earth, he called on Aquilla. The bird was rewarded for his loyal service with a place among the stars.

Between the swan and the eagle are two little constellations that are fun to learn. Look right above Altair for a small group of four stars. This is Sagitta, the Arrow, and is sometimes described as having been shot at the eagle by Sagittarius, the Archer (luckily it missed). Sometimes the arrow is shown in Aquilla’s talons and other times it is associated with Cupid’s arrow.

Just to the left of Sagitta is one of my personal favorites, Delphinus, the Dolphin. It looks like a little diamond of stars with a tail. There is an interesting story about two of the stars in this constellation, Sualocin and Rotanev. The names were first published in a star catalogue compiled at the Palermo (Italy) observatory in 1814. Turns out that if you reverse the spelling you get Nicholaus Venator, an assistant astronomer at the observatory!

I guess that’s one way to get you name up in the sky.

This month in history:
Oct. 1: NASA founded – 1958
Oct. 5: Robert Goddard born – 1882
Oct. 8: MESSENGER spacecraft makes second flyby of Mercury – 2008
Oct. 14: Chuck Yeager breaks sound barrier – 1947
Oct. 22: First record of solar eclipse – 2136 BCE
Oct. 30: STS-61A Challenger Space Shuttle launched – 1985