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Want To See Double-Double? It’s In the Stars This Week

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Want To See Double-Double? It’s In the Stars This Week

Almost overhead, as we get on toward the witching hour of midnight, is the brightest star of the Summer Triangle, brilliant bluish-white Vega (pronounced vee-ga, not vay-ga, which is an automobile). Vega, just 25 light years away, also belongs to the constellation Lyra, the Lyre. One hundred and sixty seven years ago, on July 17, 1850, Vega became the first star (other than the Sun) to be photographed, when it was imaged by William Bond and John Adams Whipple at the Harvard College Observatory, using the daguerreotype process.

Two fainter stars form a small triangle with Vega; one of these also joins three others in a parallelogram, a rather uninspiring star pattern. However, make an effort to locate Epsilon Lyrae, the other faint star in the Lyra triangle. Here lies much more than meets all but the sharpest eye.

Appearing to the average eye as a single star, it may be seen as a very close double by those with exceptional vision – the two stars being separated by just over one-tenth of the apparent diameter of the full Moon. Through binoculars, Epsilon Lyrae easily splits into two stars. But then, using a three-inch or larger telescope reveals that these two stars are themselves both doubles! That makes four stars for Epsilon Lyrae, better known as the “double-double” star in Lyra.

Many star books often refer to Lyra as a harp. But harps vary globally in many ways. In terms of size, many smaller harps can be played on the lap, whereas larger harps are quite heavy and rest on the floor.

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A lyre (pronounced “ly-er”) is quite a different instrument entirely. A classical lyre has a hollow body or sound-chest (also known as soundbox or resonator), which, in ancient Greek tradition, was made out of turtle shell. The lyre of classical antiquity was ordinarily played by being strummed with a plectrum (pick), like a guitar or a zither, rather than being plucked with the fingers as with a harp. Many hundreds of years ago, if a young man were courting a young lady, he would usually take her to a dark, quiet and serene setting, and as she gazed upward at the starry skies above, he would entertain her by playing his lyre.

Many years ago, Dr. Fred Hess, a popular lecturer at New York’s Hayden Planetarium, would tell his audience that this tradition continues to this very day:

“On any given summer night, a young man might take his girlfriend to a beach or parking lot….

“And as she stared up into the night sky,” Dr. Hess would note, “in all likelihood, she too was probably listening to a liar.”


Vega image used with permission by Randy Culp

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