How to See Cygnus, a Cross You'll Be Glad to Bear

Who hasn't had to deal with an unpleasant or difficult situation? A cross to bear? You won't find that here. Only a starry companion just now emerging into the night sky. The summer stars are marching in, starting with ...

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Brilliant white Vega in Lyra heralds the rising of the Northern Cross. Or is it a swan? This map shows the sky facing northeast around 10:30 p.m. local time. Source: Stellarium

Who hasn't had to deal with an unpleasant or difficult situation? A cross to bear? You won't find that here. Only a starry companion just now emerging into the night sky. The summer stars are marching in, starting with Vega , that bright point of light twinkling in the northeastern sky even before night has fully ripened.

At 10 o'clock local time, Vega stands two fists high. Fainter stars nearby form the small constellation Lyra the Harp . Vega was famously featured in the 1997 film Contact, where Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodi Foster) picks up repeated sequences of prime numbers coming from its direction sent by an advanced alien civilization. The most touching scene (for me) depicts her observing the sky with her dad the night he passed away. But I digress.


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Artist's concept of the dust disk and possible planets around Vega. New computer modeling techniques hint at a Jupiter-sized and Neptune-sized planets orbiting the star. Credit: David A Hardy/UKATC

Vega's a great star for a sci-fi movie because it's close at just 26 light years. Any inhabitants on Vegan planets would be awash with TV and other electromagnetic signals broadcast from Earth for decades. At present, they're only missing the last 26 years of transmissions and still clueless about Eminem, the Iraq War and Tickle Me Elmo. Vega's luminosity — 36 times brighter than the Sun — and proximity combine to make it one of the night sky's brightest stars ( #5 ). It's also only 400 million years young or more than 10 times as youthful as the Sun and surrounded by a disk of dust and rock that may be a solar system in the making. Oops! I realize that probably kills the advanced civilization theory, since you need time to make brains.

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Our featured constellations with the mythological outlines added. The cross now becomes a swan. Source: Stellarium

But now it's time to move on to the Cross I encouraged you to bear. It's Cygnus and not a cross at all. At least not formally. Cygnus translates to "swan" but unlike any other of the 88 constellations, the Swan becomes a Cross when you "read it backwards". When Vega greets your gaze at 10, Cygnus and its brightest star, Deneb, hunker down closer to the northern eastern horizon. A treeless landscape will show them, but if you wait till 10:30-11 p.m. the figure creeps into better view. Sometimes it's just better to let the Earth rotate a little to bring the stars to you instead of jumping in a car and driving to a horizon.

Albireo Double Star in Cygnus
Albireo, probably the summer sky's most beautiful double star, acts as both the "foot" of the cross and "head" or the swan. Credit: John Chumack

The Cross rises on its side with the head pointing to the left or north and foot to the right. First magnitude Deneb, while not as brilliant as Vega, serves as a great starting point from which to follow the dots that outline the rest of the figure. Once you've seen the cross, start at the foot with the star Albireo (by the way, the most beautiful double star of the summer sky in a small telescope) and re-imagine this star as the head of a swan. Work in reverse toward the swan's tail, Deneb, which means "tail" in Arabic. That's pretty handy! The arms of the cross now become the wings of a swan.


If your sky is dark, you might notice that the whole Cygnus faintly glows, and that the glow even extends to the north and south of that constellation. Sometimes confused for the aurora or light pollution, what you're really seeing is the summer Milky Way on the rise. These are exciting times. The spare spring sky's stars are slowly drifting westward soon to be replaced by Vega and a swan flapping across the billowy and resplendent summer Milky Way.


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