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Stargazing: Look for the “doughnut box”

September 20, 2012 at 11:34 AM

Gatehouse News Service

Anyone see the doughnut box?

We’re talking about a compact box-like constellation easily seen on September evenings, marked by one of the brightest stars in the sky, Vega.

The constellation is actually Lyra the Lyre (Harp) and not “Crustum Arca” (cake box in Latin; there is no Latin word for donut that I could find!). One could nickname it the doughnut box, for the constellation contains what very much looks like a doughnut, visible in small telescopes!

Look for Lyra high overhead on September evenings - as seen from mid-northern latitudes.

Finding the doughnut requires an adequate star chart and some experience. It is officially known as the Ring Nebula or M57, which appears at low magnification as a tiny gray dot. If that doesn’t excite you, switch to higher magnification.‚

A higher-power eyepiece will reveal what looks like a smoke ring or doughnut.

Better to say doughnut - smoking is bad for you.

Too many doughnuts aren’t so good for you either, though doughnut lovers everywhere are quick to point out the doughnut hole.

That’s a “diet doughnut” as opposed to the other variety, filled with jelly.

Fortunately you can admire the Ring Nebula as much as you want and stay healthy (just don’t let the stars keep you out too late so you lose your beauty sleep).

The nebula is actually a shell of ionized gas thrown off by a red giant star. The ring is over two light years wide and about 2,300 light years away.

Much easier to see is Vega, a brilliant star rated at 0 magnitude. Its bluish-white shade stands out like a gem.

It would probably be as famous as Sirius, the brightest star of the night sky, if it were closer to us.

Light from the star takes 25 years to reach us. You are seeing the star tonight as it was in 1987. The star appear on top of the “box.”

Also in Lyra and very near Vega, is one of the reddest stars you will ever find. It is faint - about ninth magnitude, and requires a small telescope at least. It can be tricky finding it among the many faint stars in the area but once you do, it is unmistakable - the red shade stands out.

The star varies somewhat in brightness and is known as T Lyrae.

There is also a fine double star in Lyra, easily seen in a small telescope. This pair actually turns out to a quadruple star, wit high magnification and a night of steady air. Together, the star system is called Epsilon Lyrae.

In Greek mythology, the constellation Lyra was associated with Orpehus, a musician who had been killed by Bacchantes. After he died, his lyre was thrown in a river. Zeus sent an eagle to retrieve the lyre, and placed it in the sky.

The Welsh refer to Lyra as King Arthur’s Harp or King David’s Harp.‚Ä® It has also been known as the Manger of the Infant Savior, Praesepe Salvatoris.

New moon is on Sept. 15; watch for the crescent moon this week after dusk.

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Keep looking up!

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