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 upon the same sky as we do, and had the same fears and guarded hopes as we do in our so-called modern age.
The date of July 7th reminds me of a famous Chinese legend from the time of Confucius in the 6th century B.C.
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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 magpies spanned the heavenly river of stars.
Today, this legend is still marked in China is marked by Qi Xi, a summer festival full of symbolism for newly-wed couples.
The brilliant blue-white star Vega is the 5th-brightest star in the sky and the 2nd brightest star north of the celestial equator after Arcturus. Vega is main sequence star, which means it creates energy by burning hydrogen in its core and otherwise behaving like a stable middle-aged star. It lies about 26 light years away.
Vega is perhaps the most rigorously observed star in the heavens except for the Sun. It was the first star for which a spectrum was obtained and the first star to be photographed. More recently, astronomers have discovered the presence of a disk of dust and debris around Vega. There may be at least one Jupiter-sized planet obscured in this disk. Because of the precession of the Earth’s axis, Vega was once the north pole star about 12,000 B.C. and it will come within 4o of the north celestial pole again in 13,700 A.D. The star is about 500 million years old, some 1/10 as old as the Sun, and 40x the Sun’s brightness. Vega is by far the brightest star in the small constellation Lyra, which in Greek legend represents the lyre of Orpheus.
Altair, the brightest star in the constellation Aquila, lies just 16 light years from Earth. It burns with a pure white light, a little cooler than Vega. Altair has about 1.8x the mass of our Sun and 11x the brightness. But whereas our Sun rotates once every 25 days, Altair rotates once every 9 hours, so fast it’s actually squashed a little at the poles. Altair is attended just to the north and south by the stars Tarazed and Alshain, γ Aquilae and β Aquilae, respectively. In the Chinese legend, these stars are sometimes taken as the children of the Herd Boy and Weaving Girl, who wander the heavens with their father, forever separated from their mother but for once a year.
Vega is nearly overhead in July in the mid-evening hours, and Altair is high above the northeastern horizon on the other side of the faint band of the Milky Way. From the southern hemisphere, these stars lie well over the northern horizon.