University Lowbrow Astronomers

Constellation of the Month: Cygnus, The Swan.

by Mark S Deprest
Printed in Reflections: July, 2001.

The constellation Cygnus

This is without a doubt my favorite constellation, for a number of reasons, but the most important one is probably; this constellation is the source of my active participation in astronomy, that’s another story entirely.  This month’s story is about Love, Honor, Foolishness and Friendship.  It’s a story that explains the reason we see the Milky Way as a faint path across the night sky.

Cycnus was a devoted friend of Phaethon, the mortal son of Helios, the charioteer of the Sun.  Phaethon was a bold and head strong teenager, and like most teenagers, he thought he knew more than his “Old-Man.”  One night his bold nature got the better of him, and despite the advice of his friend Cycnus, and the warnings of his father, Phaethon took out the family car for a bit of a joy ride.  The trouble was, the family car was the Sun Chariot and its horsepower was provided by real horses, Phaethon realized very quickly that his joy ride was a mistake, but it was too late.  The horses that pulled the Sun Chariot were strong and wild, and only the strength of Helios could control them.  Phaethon’s wild ride took him dangerously close to the vault of the heavens and threatened to singe the earth and destroy the inhabitants of both.  Cycnus pleaded with Jupiter to stop this destruction, and with all of creation endangered, Jupiter sent a thunderbolt toward the rampaging chariot and its occupant.  With a terrible explosion Phaethon was thrown from the chariot and the fiery steeds were stopped long enough for Helios to gain control and guide them back to their stables.  Phaethon, being mortal could not survive the force of a thunderbolt and fell to earth like a shooting star, his charred and lifeless remains landed in the river Eridanus.

Cycnus could not leave his friend to the creatures of the river to feed on, and wanted to give Phaethon a proper burial.  Cycnus dove repeatedly into the river to gather the charred remains of his friend.  Jupiter, watching this selfless display of devotion was moved, and when Cycnus had completed his task of love and honor.  Jupiter decided to give Cycnus a gift of immortality and changed his name to Cygnus and him into a glorious swan.  This swan would be placed forever in the heavens amidst the scorched path of Phaethon’s disastrous ride, the Milky Way.

There are other stories that may be related to this constellation, early Christians saw it as the Cross of Calvary and it is also known as the Northern Cross.  But the story related here is by far a personal favorite.

Transit at Midnight of Alpha Cygni:  August 21st

This constellation is stretches across 804 square degrees of one of the richest areas of the Summer Milky Way.  It reaches from almost 19 hours in the west to 22 hours in the east and runs from +27 degrees to +60 degrees north declination.  The stars that make up the main figure of Cygnus are first, second and third magnitude gems that stand out easily against the ethereal glow of the Milky Way back drop.  To list a good representation of the objects worth examining in Cygnus took 30 pages of descriptions, charts, drawings and photos in George Kepple’s and Glen Sanner’s The Night Sky Observer’s Guide [go here for the complete reference].  We obviously don’t have that kind of room in this newsletter, so, what follows are a few of my favorites, and a suggestion to spend no less than one full evening in feathered regions of Cygnus.  I can almost guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

Things to Check Out in Cygnus

Multiple Star Systems

Albireo, Beta Cygni, STF43, ADS 12540

61 Cygni, STF2758, ADS 14636

31 (Omicron) Cygni and 30 Cygni, STF50, ADS 13554

Delta Cygni, STF2579, ADS 12880

Deep Sky Objects

The area of the sky we are looking into is also known as the Cygnus Star Cloud and is one of the most visually beautiful parts of the northern Milky Way.  When you examine this area you are looking down the length of our spiral arm where is begins to curve around the center of our galaxy.  So, you might expect to see clusters and nebulae of all types and that is exactly what you find, here are some of my favorites.

NGC 6819

NGC 6866

NGC 6826, Blinking Planetary, PK83+12.1

NGC 6826

IC5146, Cocoon Nebula


NGC 6910

NGC 6910

NGC 6913, M29

NGC 6913

NGC 6960, Veil Nebula (western part), Supernova Remnant

NGC 6995

NGC 6992 and NGC 6995, Veil Nebula (eastern part), Supernova Remnant

NGC 6960

NGC 6992

(NGC 6992 left and NGC 6995 right)

NGC 7000, North America Nebula

NGC 7000

NGC 7092, M39


All Images on this page were downloaded from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.


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