view counter

The Nesting Doll of the Stars

Lyra the harp has star upon star hidden amid its strings

As the sun dips toward the horizon around 8:30, Venus burns through the haze of twilight low in the west. By 9pm this evening star dominates the heavens, shining at magnitude –3.8 about 10 degrees above the skyline. With a clear view below Venus and perhaps binoculars, you may be able to spot Mercury tight against the horizon within a half-hour of sunset.
    The only other planet visible is Saturn, appearing midway up the southern sky a little after sunset. Its steady golden glow is as much its hallmark as its brightness, as at magnitude 0.5, it’s no more brilliant than the major stars. Compare it to slightly dimmer Spica a little more than 10 degrees below and to the right of the ringed planet. Saturn of course takes on another look when seen through even a modest telescope, which is enough to discern the encircling bands.
    The waning moon rises around midnight Friday and then some 30 minutes later each following night. It reaches last-quarter Sunday, June 30. That makes for ever-darker skies over the next week.
    The brightest evening star this time of year is blue-white Vega, of the constellation Lyra the harp, in the east at sunset. Vega is one of our closest stellar neighbors 25 light-years away. Combined with Altair, of the constellation Aqulia the eagle and to the lower right of Vega, and Deneb, of Cygnus the swan and to the lower left of Vega, to form the Summer Triangle. Not a constellation itself but rather an asterism — a loose grouping of stars — the ­Summer Triangle.
    Lyra’s next-brightest star, Beta Lyrae, is actually a binary star, two stars closely orbiting one another. Then there’s Epsilon Lyrae, which binoculars reveal as another binary. However, like a set of Russian nesting dolls, a modest telescope reveals these two stars to each be their own double stars.