Constellations Near the Summer Milky Way

© 1996 by Robert C. Moler

Once it gets dark enough in the evening the Milky Way will dominate the sky. This milky stream spans the sky from north to south. In and around it are some of the most famous constellations of the heavens. Lets start in the south.

The constellations of the summer zodiac are low in the south. At 11 p.m. at mid month the constellation Scorpius the scorpion is already beginning to set in the southwest. Sagittarius at that time is due south. Freely translated Sagittarius means the archer. However in Greek mythology, it wasn't just any archer, but a centaur named Chiron, who was master of the bow. A centaur was a creature, half man and half horse. They were as a rule, a rowdy bunch, given to carousing and drunkenness. However Chiron was different. He was gentle, learned, and a skilled surgeon. He was given the task of raising the young Hercules. He of all the centaurs was immortal. However in a battle along side Hercules he was incurably wounded. Some stories tell of how Zeus allowed him to die, another story has Chiron placed in the sky as the constellation Sagittarius. Incidentally Jupiter, Zeus' Roman counterpart is passing in front of Sagittarius this year.

Finding a centaur in the stars here is rather difficult, but it is easy to spot the stars of this constellation by seeing other figures. My favorite is the Teapot. It sits low in the south with most of its stars residing east of the Milky Way. It is an upright and stout little teapot. There are four stars to the east or left which form a handle. The upper right star of the handle is shared by the triangular lid on top. And the rightmost lid star is shared with the upper left star of the triangular spout. The bottom star of the spout and that of the handle form the bottom. What's really neat is that the Milky Way appears as steam rising from the spout. As the night wears on the Teapot will tip, pouring tea on the southwestern horizon.

High overhead is the brightest star of the summer constellations, Vega. It isn't the brightest star out. That honor belongs to Arcturus to the west. And of course Jupiter outshines everything else. Vega is a member of a bright three star group called the Summer Triangle. This isn't a constellation, but an informal constellation called an asterism, like the Teapot and the Big Dipper. Vega is the westernmost of star of the Summer Triangle. High in the east is Deneb, the second star, while in the southeast is Atair completing the triangle. Each of these stars is in a separate constellation.

Vega is Lyra the lyre or harp. With it is a parallelogram of stars which make up the harp's frame. Lyra isn't a very large constellation, but it is compact and easily spotted.

It is said that the god Hermes invented the lyre, by stretching strings across a tortoise shell. He gave it to Apollo, who in turn bestowed it on his son Orpheus. The strains produced by Orpheus on his lyre were so sweet that even trees and rocks were able to appreciate its charm.

Another mythical musician of the lyre was Arion. On a voyage home from winning a contest, the ship's crew decided to do away with Arion and split the prize among them. Confronted by the crew who were about to throw him overboard, Arion asked for his lyre to play one last time. That done, Arion dove into the sea. He was borne to land by a school of dolphin who had been entranced by his playing. Arriving ahead of his ship, he was able to see that justice was done. One of the dolphins is also in the sky nearby as the constellation Delphinus.

The bright star Deneb to the east is in the tail of Cygnus the swan. This bird is seen flying south through the Milky Way. Southward from Deneb there are three or four stars that represent the body, long neck and head of this gracefully flying swan. From the second star from Deneb can be seen other stars that suggest the outstretched wings. It's all quite well proportioned. Cygnus is also called the Northern Cross, another asterism. Cygnus is the form Zeus took to seduce Leda in the famous Leda and the swan affair. Born out of that union was a member of another constellation: Pollux of Gemini.

The southeastern star of the Summer Triangle is Altair, which belongs to Aquila the eagle. This bird is flying northeastward, and would normally collide with Cygnus, if they actually were flying freely. Altair is a bit harder to pick out of the Milky Way than Cygnus. Flanking Altair, north and south, are two stars, which are the shoulders of the eagle, while Altair is its head. It has wing tip stars and to the lower right stars of its tail.

In Korean legend Altair and its two flanking stars were a prince, and the stars of Lyra his bride. They were banished to these separate places in the summer heavens by the bride's father. They are separated by the great river of the sky, the Milky Way. They were only permitted to meet on the 7th day of the 7th moon of the year. On that day all the magpies of Korea were supposed to fly up to the sky so that their bodies could form a bridge upon which the lovers could meet. It's said that the feet of the prince and his bride wore off the feathers of the heads of some of the magpies. This is a folk explanation of what happens during the magpie molting season.

There's some easy to find constellations in and around the Milky Way.

Note: The constellation stories were taken in part from Star Names Their Lore and Meaning by Richard Hinkley Allen, Dover Pubilcations Inc., New York.

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Uploaded: 09/01/96