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August 2004
Cygnus the Swan

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In the Northern Hemisphere, Summer and Early Fall are the best times to view the magnificent Milky Way. And from dark sky sites, you can see the spine of the Milky Way cutting right through Cygnus the Swan, almost directly overhead. Also known as the Northern Cross, Cygnus is probably my favorite constellation. It's easy to see the elegant shape of the swan, wniging gracefully through a thick backdrop of stars. On the map at left, Cygnus is flying left to right. The bright star Deneb (which means tail in Arabic) marks the swan's tail. Deneb is the 19th brightest star in the entire sky, yet it lies at the incredible distance of 1500 light years from earth. Cygnus' long neck extends forward and ends at the star Albireo (beak in Arabic). There's more about Albireo below. The bright yellow star on this map near Deneb is called Sadr (meaning: breast.) From Sadr you can trace out the patterns of the swan's magnificent wings. The heart of the Summer Milky Way, in Scorpius and Sagittarius, is difficult to see from the Northern Hemisphere. Cygnus, on the other hand, rides straight overhead for Northern skywatchers. It is truly one of the grandest spectacles in the sky. I strongly recommend stretching out on a lawnchair and exploring the vast Cygnus star clouds with binoculars.

Deneb marks one corner of the "Summer Triangle", an asterism of three stars. The other two are Vega, bright white jewel in Lyra the Harp, and Altair, head of Aquila the Eagle.


 

In this larger, more detailed view (adapted from Norton's Sky Atlas 2000.0), we'll take a closer look at some of the interesting sights in Cygnus. Our tour goes in order of Right Ascension, which is right to left on this map. The symbols below show how an object is best viewed:

with your naked eye;
with binoculars, and
with a telescope.

M56. This globular cluster is a little beauty. Just west of Albireo, this glob sports a dense core amidst a heavy background of Milky Way stars. More info and picture.

NGC 6910, "The Wishbone." The Wishbone is a small open cluster just northeast of the bright star Sadr. It is embedded in the Gamma Cygni or Butterfly Nebula, which is difficult to observe visually. This region is stunning in photographs. Check out our Cygnus photos in the Gallery.

M29. A medium sized open cluster, M29 is made up of a loose grouping of fairly bright stars. It can be difficult to pick out among the rich background stars surrounding it. More info and picture.

The Veil Nebula, NGC 6992 and 6960. The Veil, as you can guess from its name, is an elusive object. Also known as the Cirrus Nebula, the Veil is a supernova remnant- the remains of a violent stellar explosion scattered through space. It consists of two halves: the eastern half is a bit brighter, while the western half runs straight through the bright star 52 Cygni. The Veil is not as elusive as you might think, however. It is clearly visible with an 8 inch f/6 reflector from a dark sky site. A nebula filter also doesn't hurt! Check out some great photos of the Veil on the NOAO Image Gallery Nebula Page.

The North America Nebula, NGC 7000. The North America can be a challenge to observe visually. You may see a dense region of nebulosity, but it's hard to pick out the shape. If you have a tripod to mount your binocs on, it's well worth it to study this region carefully. Check out our North America Nebula Photos.

M39. Surprisingly, there are only 2 Messier objects in Cygnus, M29 and M39. M39 is the larger of the two, and it is also a loose open cluster. M39 contains about 30 stars. More info and picture.
 

Double and Multiple Stars

Albireo (b Cygni). Albireo is one of the treasures of the Summer Sky. It is a showcase of star parties everywhere. A double star, Albireo's two components are lemon yellow and cobalt blue, providing a stunningly beautiful contrast. To the naked eye, Albireo appears as only a single star.

30 and o1 Cygni. Between Deneb and Delta (d) Cygni, there are two bright "twin" stars of about magnitude 3.5. The southernmost of these two is a "multiple" star. Actually these stars are very far apart in real space, but they line up from our vantage point. Omicron (o) is a double star, with a dazzling red-orange primary and a faint companion. 30 Cygni is off to the side, and is bright blue-white. Turn your telescope on this little group to view a triple treat!

61 Cygni. A true Double Star, the components of 61 Cygni are nearly twins, at magnitudes 5.2 and 6.0., and are separated by a distance of 30.3 arcseconds. They glow like two eerie orange eyes, staring back at you from the depths of space. There are no other bright stars in the area, making the "eyes" even more stunning. Aren't they gorgeous!

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