No question, the hard science of astronomy enriches our view of the night sky, and tells us the ‘what’, and the ‘why’ of what we see. But the ancient star legends from cultures all over the world still capture our attention and connect us with the long line of humanity passed, those who gazed on (roughly) the same sky as we do, and had the same fears and guarded hopes as we do in our so-called modern age.
Today, July 7th, reminds me of a famous Chinese legend from the time of Confucius in the 6th century B.C.
The story tells of a poor herd boy (represented by the star Altair) and a humble weaving girl (the star Vega) who were once so lost in romantic distraction that they neglected their duties to their heavenly masters. As punishment, the boy and girl were placed in the sky and separated forever by the Celestial River (the Milky Way). But the heavenly spirits had some compassion… once a year, on the 7th night of the 7th moon, the lovers were allowed to meet when a bridge of birds spanned the heavenly river of stars.
Who says there’s no romance in astronomy?
As you contemplate this celestial couple, take a little time to sweep the sky on a line between Vega and Altair with your binoculars or finderscope to see the odd little asterism called the “Coathanger”.
Also called Brocchi’s cluster, the Coathanger isn’t a true star cluster because its stars aren’t gravitationally associated. But its unmistakable shape and bright stars make for fine viewing on a warm summer night (or a cool winter night… the Coathanger is visible from the southern hemisphere, too). It’s also one of the many sights described in Stargazing for Beginners: A Binocular Tour of the Night Sky.
The map below shows you where to find the Coathanger. It makes great viewing for summer star parties… even total beginners gasp and laugh when they see this strange little group of stars.
The position of the “Coathanger”, between Altair and Vega (click to enlarge)
That’s it for today… we’re going to keep these messages a little shorter, since we know how busy you are. But busy or not, take a little time to look up.