Lyra the Harp

In the early evening during August and September every year, the constellations of Lyra (the Harp), Cygnus (the Swan), Hercules, and Draco (the Dragon) occupy the zenith. In Greek mythology, Lyra was the musical instrument created from a turtle shell by Hermes and later used by Orpheus in his ill-fated attempt to rescue his lost love Eurydice from the underworld.

Facing south and looking just to the lower right of the zenith, you’ll easily spot the very bright star Vega, also known as Alpha Lyrae — the brightest star in the constellation. Vega is the fifth brightest star in the entire night sky — partly because it is only about 25 light-years away from us, and partly because it is a very hot, luminous star. The name Vega arises from the Arabic “Al Nasr al Waqi”, or the “swooping eagle”. Traditionally, the Lyre was depicted grasped in the talons of an eagle.

Look for a medium-dim star to the left of Vega. A similarly dim star sits below Vega. Those three stars form a neat little triangle with Vega on the right. Binoculars or a small telescope will reveal that the triangle’s star to the left of Vega, designated Epsilon (ε) Lyrae, is actually a close pair of stars. The other corner of our little triangle is the star Zeta (ζ) Lyrae, and it, too, can be split into a double star with binoculars. Both are white, and one is slightly brighter than its partner.

Zeta is also the top right star of a parallelogram that forms the rest of the constellation — the body of the harp itself. Moving clockwise, we find Sheliak, Sulafat, and Delta (δ) Lyrae. Sheliak, meaning “Harp”, is the brightest of a tight little grouping of stars visible in a telescope. Next, at the bottom of the parallelogram, sits Sulafat, meaning “Turtle”; it is a hot, blue giant star located 620 light-years away. Finally, at the upper left of the parallelogram is Delta (δ) Lyrae. It is another pair of stars — one blue (upper) and one red (lower).

The stargazing guide Star Walk 2 will help you to find the constellation Lyra in the sky above you. Just tap the search icon in the lower-left corner of the screen, enter the name of the constellation and select it from a list — Lyra will appear on the screen. Tilt your device up to activate the “Star Spotter” function: live representation of what you see in the sky will appear on the screen, and the app will start following your movements. Follow the arrow on the screen to find the position of the selected object in the sky. In the app’s settings, you can choose how a constellation will look like on a sky map — like a group of shining stars or like an animal or mythological person it was named after.

Happy stargazing!

Adapted from Chris Vaughan



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