Summer Constellation Spotlight: Lyra

 Summer Constellation Spotlight: Lyra


Lyra constellation

Lyra, the Lyre, is a small but well-known constellation in the Northern Hemisphere’s Summer sky. It resides between the constellations Cygnus, the Swan, commonly known as the Northern Cross, and Hercules, the Roman mythological hero. Lyra moves across the sky nearly overhead on clear, warm nights and is easy to recognize thanks to its parallelogram shape. Although not excessively bright, you can see Lyra from urban skies and under moonlight.


The constellation’s namesake is a small stringed instrument shaped like a U-shaped harp fixed to a crossbar, which musicians played in ancient Greece. Lyra is often associated with the Greek musician Orpheus and was one of the 48 constellations listed by the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the second century. Lyra contains several notable double stars and deep-sky celestial targets that are easy to locate and observe, especially for beginning stargazers. Bring your binoculars and telescope or use your naked eyes and let’s explore Lyra!

Epsilon Lyrae

The brilliant star Vega, the Harp Star, is the fifth-brightest in the night sky at magnitude +0.03 and is the brightest Summer star in the Northern Hemisphere. It is one of the three bright signature stars that make up the asterism known as the Summer Triangle, which includes the bright stars Deneb and Altair. Through a telescope, Vega appears like a sparkling white diamond!


Trace the small triangle of stars attached to the parallelogram from Vega. One of these stars is the famous Epsilon Lyrae, also known as the “Double-Double.” Epsilon Lyrae appears to the naked eye as a single star. Through binoculars, it resolves into two stars, Epsilon 1 and Epsilon 2.  Through a telescope using high power in steady-seeing conditions, each star resolves into two additional stars for a total of four stars—a quadruple-star system! Epsilon 1’s stars are magnitudes +4.7 and +6.2, and Epsilon 2’s stars are magnitudes +5.1 and +5.5. The Double-Double is easy to find because of its proximity to the bright star Vega. Can you see all four stars?

Ring Nebula

The most popular deep-sky target in Lyra is the relatively bright planetary nebula Messier 57, also known as the Ring Nebula. At magnitude +8.8, this nebula appears as a small, ghostly “smoke ring” or a doughnut through a telescope. The ring we see today is the remnant of its central star after it became a white dwarf and expelled its last stages of ionized gas into interstellar space. The best way to see M57 is using averted vision, as staring at it will make it more challenging to discern. M57 is easy to find—draw an imaginary line between the two bottom stars of the parallelogram, Sulafat and Sheliak. The Ring Nebula lies approximately halfway between these two stars.


Lyra Galaxy

In 1779, Charles Messier discovered the globular cluster Messier 56 in Lyra. You’ll find it halfway between the double star Albireo in the constellation Cygnus and Lyra’s bottom left star, Sulafat. The cluster is 33,000 light-years away from Earth and has an apparent magnitude of +8.3. You can see M56 in binoculars or a small telescope, where it will appear as a fuzzy star. You’ll start to resolve individual stars in the cluster with a larger aperture telescope of 8” or more. Look for M56 throughout the Summer.


Delta 1 and Delta 2

A stunning optical double star, Delta-1 Lyrae and Delta-2 Lyrae, lies in the northeast corner of Lyra’s parallelogram. The two stars lie in an open cluster of stars at a distance of 1080 and 899 light-years, respectively. Delta-2 Lyrae is a deep red 4th magnitude star, the brighter and closer of the two. Delta-1 Lyrae is a fainter blue star at 5th magnitude. Astronomers discovered that these stars are not gravitationally linked but are stunning visual doubles.


Lyra is also home to the annual Springtime meteor shower, the Lyrids. This year, the shower runs from April 16 through April 25 and peaks around April 22. Dust particles from long-period Comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher fuel the Lyrids shower. Its radiant is near the bright star Vega. Skywatchers usually count up 20 meteors per hour and occasionally report seeing “Lyrid Fireballs” light up the early morning sky.


You can see Lyra from various latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere during summer. Use a star chart or astronomy app to check when Lyra will be in a prime area in the sky for your viewing location. If possible, head to a dark, rural area away from light pollution for the best observing experience. Clear skies and happy observing!