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Astronomy: Stargazing Gems in Lyra

8-5-11 M57 Ring Nebula NASA STScI AURA 
M57, the Ring Nebula, can be found in Lyra using a telescope. Credit: NASA/STScI/AURA

The bright star Vega, seen just overhead at this time of year, is the anchor for the constellation Lyra. Lyra the Lyre is a relatively easy constellation to pick out among the background stars of the Milky Way. Face east and then look nearly straight up. With its brilliant beacon of Vega, the parallelogram shape of the body of the lyre is found below and to the right (south) of the star.

The star Vega certainly needs no optical equipment to see. But there is an unseen element to this star, lurking beyond the reach of backyard telescopes. Vega is home to a disk of gas and dust. This star is about 400 million years old and may have an infant planetary system forming around it.

Double stars are rampant in Lyra. You don’t have to be looking for them to find them. Binoculars will pull out many by just sweeping across the stars nearby Vega, and a telescope will give you a closer view. One of the famous double stars in Lyra is to the lower left of Vega. This star system is called the Double Double, or Epsilon Lyrae. Use binoculars to show the two stars of Epsilon Lyrae, and then turn a telescope on them to show that each of those stars is also a double system.

For a great telescopic treat in Lyra, aim midway between the farthest two parallelogram stars from Vega and then look just a bit above this spot to find the Ring Nebula. The Ring Nebula is a curious creature to look at through the telescope because it makes you want to adjust the focus knob to get a better look at this blurry, blobby object. The nebula is rather large through my 8-inch telescope, which makes it easier to spot — at 1 ½ arcminutes across it sets itself apart from the bright pinpricks of stars. Take some time to gaze at it and allow your vision to make out the ring shape that stretches into a bit of an oval. This nebula was created when the star at the center of the ring reached the end of its life and puffed off a huge cocoon of gas. Images of the Ring Nebula taken at observatories show the true colors of the cocoon, which is rainbow-hued and a bit reminiscent of Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park.

-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She writes the SkyGuide for AstronomyToday.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.

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