Looking Up: Cygnus the Swan flies overhead

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald
Face south on a clear September evening to see Cygnus the Swan, Aquila the Eagle, Lyra the Lyre and little Delphinus, the night sky's very own Dolphin.

Chart by Peter Becker

By Peter Becker

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September generally brings cooler, clearer nights. Take advantage of the excellent front-row seat you have of the Milky Way Band, prominent in the evening and around midnight. The sky at this time is split in half, with the billowing stellar haze of the Milky Way coursing overhead from, northeast to southwest.

Straight overhead is the figure of the Northern Cross, which is part of the constellation Cygnus the Swan. It is not hard to visualize either.

The cross shape is quite obvious and when near overhead, when facing southward, the cross is positioned properly with the top of the cross, on top! Deneb, a bright blue-white star of magnitude 1.3, marks the top and is the brightest in Cygnus. When pictured as the swan, however, Deneb marks the tail. The bottom of the cross is marked by the star Albiero, which is a beautiful double star discernible in binoculars and small telescopes. The two stars, which travel together in space, are blue and yellow. You may have guessed it- Albiero also makes the head of the swan.

Interestingly, Cygnus the Swan, in this position, appears to be heading south, right in time with all migrating birds. Winter can’t be far behind!

Cygnus the Swan is right in the midst of the Milky Way Band. If you have dark, transparent skies, notice how the Milky Way seems to split into two parallel forks beginning near Deneb, and heading down. Referred to as the Great Rift, what you are seeing is not a tremendous split in the Milky Way, but the silhouette of a massive, dark interstellar nebula- or cloud, which is hiding the light of the Milky Way stars behind it.

While facing south in the evening in mid-September, notice the bright stars Vega and Altair, which with Deneb form a huge triangle. Vega is on the right, on top an obvious rectangle of stars, making up Lyra the Lyre (an ancient harp). Altair, which is to the left and well below Deneb, marks the "eye" of the constellation Aquila the Eagle, facing the opposite direction of the Swan. Aquila is also in front of the Milky Way; at the lower end, part of the Eagle’s "tail feathers" likes a wide, bright section of the Milky Way referred to as the Scutum Star Cloud (it is actually within the constellation Scutum the Shield). If you have a small telescope (or bigger), be sure to sweep this region. A magnificent, bright star cluster lies here, known as M11, the Wild Duck Cluster. To some, the view in the telescope resembles a V-shaped flock of ducks. The writer finds this cluster one of the most remarkable in the sky, shaped very much like a square, filled with stars in almost neat rows.

While you’re at it, find the intriguing constellation Sagitta the Arrow, between the Swan and the Eagle, and a little to the left, see the compact constellation, Delphinus the Dolphin, swimming eastward from the Milky Way’s shores.

Last-quarter moon is on Sept. 15. Keep looking up!