Constellations: Lyra 'the Lyre' Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Constellations: Lyra 'the Lyre'

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Lyra, the constellation.

All shattered, low beneath her feet,
The cherished lyre's thrown;
The grief-wind o'er her soul hath swept,
And all the music's flown.
- The Broken Lyre (1863)

Lyra the Constellation

Name:Lyra (Latin: 'lyre')
Genitive:Lyrae
Short form:Lyr
Area:286 sq deg
Co-ordinates1:Right Ascension 19h, Declination +40°
Origin:Ancient

Lyra is one of the 48 constellations listed by Greek astronomer Ptolemy, and the 52nd of the modern 88. It is a relatively small constellation bordered by Draco, Cygnus and Vulpecula, with the massive Hercules sharing half of Lyra's borders. Lyra is notable for containing a first-magnitude star, two Messier catalogue objects and many extrasolar planets.

Mythology

The lyre is a stringed instrument like a small harp. It was supposedly created from the shell of a tortoise or turtle by Hermes as a gift for Apollo, his half-brother. Apollo gave it to his son, Orpheus, who was a talented minstrel and one of the fabled Argonauts. Orpheus was a hopeless romantic who fell in love with a nymph named Eurydice, whom he married. They were very happy together until the demigod Aristaeus took a fancy to the lovely Eurydice. In her haste to escape his advances, Eurydice trod on a venomous snake which retaliated by biting her.

When she died, Orpheus was so distraught that he followed his wife on her journey through the Underworld. Once there he sang and played his lyre enchantingly, persuading Pluto, the god of the Underworld, with his charming verse to allow him to take Eurydice home. Orpheus was granted his wish on one condition, that he did not gaze upon Eurydice until they were above ground. Unfortunately Orpheus couldn't resist looking back to see if his wife was still following him, and she died a second time.

Faithful Orpheus swore he would never love another, and when some wild women of Thrace were rejected by him, they tore him apart in their jealous rage. His decapitated head, still singing its woeful lament, and the accompanying lyre ended up in the river Hebrus. The watching gods despatched the Muses to collect the body parts and bury them at Libethra. Above this grave the birds are heard to sing more sweetly than in any other part of Greece. When Orpheus reached the Underworld he sought out his beloved Eurydice; upon finding her they eagerly embraced. The lovers happily wander the Elysium Fields together, with Orpheus incurring no penalty for his loving gaze. Zeus, the king of the gods, paid tribute to the love of Orpheus and Eurydice by placing the lyre in the sky as a constellation.

In another story, Lyra is one of three birds hunted by Hercules, whose constellation is close by. The others were Aquila 'the Eagle' and Cygnus 'the Swan'. The group were identified with the Stymphalian Birds of Greek legend; the slaying of them was one of Hercules' 12 labours. Lyra was part of the vulture constellation of the ancient Egyptians, enjoying the protection of the goddess Ma'at. In Australian Aboriginal legend, Tyawan, a witch doctor, turns himself into a lyre bird to escape from a fearsome creature called the Bunyip, which still has the power to scare visitors to Australia even today!

Stars

The scientific star names are simple to understand (if you know your Greek alphabet). For example: 'alpha Lyrae' means that it is the brightest star in the constellation Lyra. The next brightest is designated 'beta', etc. Combined with the genitive name, this is known as the 'Bayer designation'. Some stars have proper names as well; for example, alpha Lyrae is Vega. Others are known by their catalogue number.

Stars in Lyra

Alpha Lyrae is a very well-known star called Vega, the first star ever to be photographed, on the night of 16 July, 1850, by JA Whipple. Vega is one of the three stars which forms the Summer Triangle, an asterism2 coined by Sir Patrick Moore. Vega is the 5th-brightest star of all at 0.03 magnitude and it has a protoplanetary (dust) disk. It is also known by other names: Dilgan 'Messenger of Light' (Babylonian), Tir-anna 'Life of Heaven' (Akkadian), Wega and 'the Harp Star'. Vega was the North Celestial Pole Star (pole position is cyclical) some 12,000 years ago and will be again in another 10,000 years. The temples at Abydos and Luxor in Egypt were aligned with this star.

Beta Lyrae, Sheliak, is a star system consisting of two stars; a white main sequence star and a less luminous blue-white dwarf star. The stars are a good example of a binary star system, meaning that they share a centre of gravity and appear to rotate around each other. The two stars in this particular system are so close to each other that they constantly pull each other out of shape, and we call this an eclipsing binary system.

Star Table

StarDesignationName or
catalogue number
MagnitudeDistance
(light years3)
Spectral classification
and/or comments
α Lyralpha LyraeVega (swooping)+0.0325Sometime 'pole' star
β Lyrbeta LyraeSheliak (tortoise)+3.3var900Evolving eclipsing binary stars
γ Lyrgamma LyraeSulaphat (turtle)+3.24635Multiple star system
δ Lyrdelta Lyrae11 Lyrae+5.61,100Binary star system
ε Lyrepsilon Lyrae4 Lyrae+4.7 and +6.2162Double binary star system
ζ Lyrzeta Lyrae6 Lyrae+4.34154White giant
η Lyreta LyraeAladfar (the claws)+4.41,042Blue-white giant
θ Lyrtheta Lyrae21 Lyrae+4.35770Trinary star system
ι Lyriota Lyrae18 Lyrae+5.25830Blue-white subgiant
κ Lyrkappa Lyrae1 Lyrae+4.33238Orange giant
λ Lyrlambda Lyrae15 Lyrae+4.941,500Orange giant
μ Lyrmu LyraeAlathfar+5.12440White giant
ν Lyrnu Lyrae9 Lyrae+5.22238White giant
RR Lyr RR LyraeHD 182989+7.13745Prototype of the RR Lyrae variables
XY LyrXY LyraeHD 172380+6.021,200Pulsating red subgiant
Gliese 747AB17 Lyr CKuiper 90+9135Red dwarf binary system

New General Catalogue (NGC)

The NGC was compiled by John Louis Emil Dreyer (the director of the Armagh Observatory from 1882 to 1916).

M56

M56 (NGC 6779) is a globular cluster. Globular clusters are groups of stars which form a globe, or ball-shape. They are almost as old as the Milky Way itself, and can contain millions of stars. Charles Messier discovered the globular cluster in Lyra in 1779, but it lacked a central bright core, and Messier described it as a 'nebula without stars'. However, William Herschel correctly identified it as a low-emission globular cluster in 1784. The stars range between 11th and 14th magnitude, with an average of 15th mag for the brightest 25 stars. What makes this globular cluster special for fans of Douglas Adams is its girth: its radius has been measured at 42 light years.

Ring Nebula

In 1779 the French astronomer Antoine Darquier de Pellepoix (1718 - 1802) discovered the Ring Nebula, later catalogued as M57 and NGC 6720. It can be located between beta and gamma Lyrae. We now know the nebula, which is 500 times the size of our own Solar System, is cylindrical in shape.

NGC Table

CatalogueNameTypeMagnitudeDistance
(light years)
Remarks
NGC 6779M56Globular cluster+8.332,900Radius 42ly
NGC 6720 (M57)Ring NebulaPlanetary nebula+8.84,000Discovered in 1779 by
Antoine Darquier de Pellepoix
NGC 6745NGC 6745Peculiar Galaxy+10200mCosmic trainwreck

Extrasolar Planets

There have been many extrasolar planetary systems found in the constellation Lyra; the first was discovered in 1999. Figures given in the table below are the length of the planet's orbital period around its parent star, which we know of as a year. The mass of the extrasolar planet is compared to that of Jupiter, our Solar System's largest planet, known by astronomers as the 'Jovian scale'.

Extrasolar Planets Table

Star name or
catalogue number
Planet
catalogue number
Planet mass
(Jovian scale)
Orbital period
(Earth days)
Year of discoveryComments
HD 177830HD 177830 b1.283911999Eccentric orbit
HD 177830HD 177830 c0.21112007Unpublished
HD 178911 BHD 178911 Bb6.371.52001Lithium abundant
TrES-14TrES-1 b0.60.042004Discovered by radial velocity method
HAT-P-5HAT-P-5 b1.062.82007Hot Jupiter
WASP-3WASP-3 b1.761.842007Hot Jupiter
HD 173416HD 173416 b2.7323.62009Gas giant
GJ 758GJ 758 b20106,0002009Brown dwarf
Kepler-7Kepler-7 b0.434.882010Hot gas giant
Kepler-8Kepler-8 b0.63.522010Hot gas giant
Kepler-9Kepler-9 b0.2519.242010Hot gas giant
Kepler-9Kepler-9 c0.1738.92010Hot gas giant
Kepler-9Kepler-9 d0.021.592010Hot super-Earth
WASP-58WASP-58 b0.895.022011Hot Jupiter
Kepler-12Kepler-12 b0.434.42011Hot gas giant
Kepler-14Kepler-14 b8.46.82011Hot Jupiter
Kepler-20Kepler-20 b0.0273.72011Hot gas giant
Kepler-20Kepler-20 c0.0510.852011Hot gas giant
Kepler-20Kepler-20 d0.0677.62011Hot gas giant
Kepler-20Kepler-20 e0.00976.12011Hot Venus
Kepler-20Kepler-20 f0.04519.52011Hot Earth
Kepler-24Kepler-24 b1.68.142012Hot gas giant
Kepler-24Kepler-24 c1.612.332012Hot gas giant
Kepler-25Kepler-25 b12.76.242012Possible brown dwarf
Kepler-25Kepler-25 c4.1612.72012Hot gas giant
Kepler-26Kepler-26 b0.3812.22012Hot gas giant
Kepler-26Kepler-26 c0.37517.252012Hot gas giant
Kepler-27Kepler-27 b9.115.32012Hot gas giant
Kepler-27Kepler-27 c13.831.32012Possible brown dwarf
Kepler-28Kepler-28 b1.55.92012Hot gas giant
Kepler-28Kepler-28 c1.368.992012Hot gas giant
Kepler-30Kepler-30 b0.229.35.62012Hot gas giant
Kepler-30Kepler-30 c9.160.32012Hot gas giant
Kepler-30Kepler-30 d171432012Possible brown dwarf
Kepler-33Kepler-33 b0.165.62012Hot gas giant
Kepler-33Kepler-33 c0.2913.22012Hot gas giant
Kepler-33Kepler-33 d0.4821.72012Hot gas giant
Kepler-33Kepler-33 e0.3631.82012Hot gas giant
Kepler-33Kepler-33 f0.441.032012Hot gas giant
Kepler-350Kepler-350 c0.017617.82013Hot gas giant
Kepler-350Kepler-350 d0.04826.12013Hot gas giant

Lyra/Lyre in Nature

  • There's a rather attractive variety of guppy called the lyre-tail.

  • Lyrebirds are so-named because of their distinctive tails, which resemble the musical instrument. Native to Australia, there are two distinct species: the Weringerong5 (Menura novaehollandiae) and the slightly smaller Albert's Lyrebird (Menura alberti) which was named in honour of Prince Albert, the consort of Queen Victoria.

Lyra and Vega in Modern Culture

  • Kate Bush has released a song entitled 'Lyra'.

  • In the Star Trek universe there are many mentions of a human settlement cohabiting with native Vegans.

  • Chevrolet launched a 'Vega' model in 1971, but the star had an earlier car named after it, one of the most beautiful of the classic cars, the Facel Vega from the 1950s.

  • In the sci-fi novel and film Contact by Dr Carl Sagan, the extra-terrestrial message received by Earth hails from the Lyra constellation, specifically the Vegan solar system. The heroine of the story, Dr Ellie Arroway, even gets to travel there.

  • Lyra Belacqua is the heroine character in the trilogy His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, the first volume of which is now a fantasy blockbuster movie called The Golden Compass starring Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig6, Sir Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee, Ian McShane, Derek Jacobi, Kathy Bates, Eva Green and Kristen Scott Thomas. Dakota Blue Richards (born 1994) won the role of Lyra over 10,000 other auditionees to star in her first acting role.

1Current IAU guidelines use a plus sign (+) for northern constellations and a minus sign (−) for southern ones.2An asterism is a group of stars which isn't already a named constellation.3A light year is the distance light travels in one year, roughly 5.88 trillion miles or 9.46 trillion km.4TrES stands for Trans-Atlantic Exoplanet Survey.5When Sir David Attenborough included this lyrebird mimicking a chainsaw, camera shutter and car alarm in The Life of Birds, the encounter was voted the UK's favourite Attenborough moment in a 2006 online poll, taking almost a quarter of the votes.6'James Bond' at the time of writing.

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