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The Celestial Swan

Among the 65 plus constellations seen from Earth there are all kinds of celestial characters, and all of them have stories dreamed up by people over the eons. That’s certainly the case with the constellation Cygnus the Swan. I’ll get to the story in just a bit, but first let me help you find the big bird of the heavens soaring in the southern sky.

The best way to spot Cygnus is to first look for the “Summer Triangle.” That’s one of the handiest tools we have for finding your way around the summer skies. Just look in the eastern heavens for the three brightest stars you see and that’s it. Each of the three stars that make up the triangle is the brightest star in their respective constellations.

The bright star on the upper left-hand corner of the Summer Triangle is Deneb, the brightest star in Cygnus the Swan. Deneb is a huge, luminous star that’s at least 1500 light years away, with just one light year equaling nearly six trillion miles! Before you hunt down the rest of swan, it’s actually easier at first to see Cygnus by its nickname, the “Northern Cross”. Most of the stars in Cygnus also outline a giant cross diagonally orientated that’s easy to spot. Deneb is at the head of the cross and as you gaze to the right of Deneb, you’ll see three stars lined up in a row that make up the cross piece of the cross. Look farther down to the right of the cross piece and you’ll see Albireo, a moderately bright star that marks the foot of the sideways cross. By the way, take a small telescope and have a closer look at Albireo. You’ll see that what looks like a not so impressive star with the naked eye is actually a gorgeous, colorful, double star. One of the stars is a distinct blue and the other a pale orange, with both stars shining away nearly 400 light years away.

Once you see the Northern Cross it’s a cinch to see the entire swan. The bright star Deneb marks the tail of Cygnus and Albireo marks the head of the big bird. Then all you have to do is look for a couple of fainter stars a little to the left of both sides of the crosspiece. That turns the crosspiece into an arc that outlines the giant wingspan of Cygnus, and you got yourself one big honkin’ swan that looks like it’s headed south.

As it is with most constellations there are multiple stories that go back to ancient cultures, even within the same culture. One of the Greek mythology yarns has Cygnus as Phaethon, the restless teenage son of Apollo, the god of the sun. Apollo was one of the most important gods of Mount Olympus. His job was to guide a giant glass sun chariot across the sky day after day, gallantly pulled by a fleet of flying white horses.

One day before sunrise, when Apollo was still sleeping, Phaethon broke into the barn and hijacked the horses and sun chariot. He took the sun on a really wild ride in the sky. Apollo woke up, saw what was going on and went into action. He called out to Hermes, the messenger of the gods, and borrowed his winged shoes so he could fly up to the out of control sun chariot to rescue it and his wayward son.

Apollo reached the chariot and took the reins from Phaethon. While he was attempting to lift his son into the back seat he lost his grip and Phaethon took a huge plunge into the river Po. There was no way Apollo could reach his son before he Phaethon reached the river. Apollo was devastated!

From Mount Olympus Zeus, the king of the gods, as well as Apollo's father and Phaethon's grandfather, witnessed this tragedy and was equally as dejected. To honor his grandkid he took Phaethon’s remains and magically transformed him into the beautiful constellation we see today as Cygnus the swan, memorial for Phaethon. He's not joy riding with the sun chariot anymore, but he still graces our summer skies as a graceful celestial swan.


Diagram of CYGNUS...Click here