How to Find the Lyra Constellation in the Night Sky

The constellation lyra.
The constellation Lyra (center) with its bright star Vega, and the constellation Cygnus nearby. The small green oval in Lyra is a planetary nebula for observers to search out.

Carolyn Collins Petersen

The nighttime skies of the northern hemisphere summer and southern hemisphere winter feature a tiny constellation called Lyra, the Harp. Located next to Cygnus the Swan, Lyra has a long history and harbors a few fascinating surprises for stargazers.

Finding Lyra

To locate Lyra, look for Cygnus. It's right next door. Lyra looks like a small lopsided box or a parallelogram in the sky. It's also not far from the constellation Hercules, a hero honored by the Greeks in their pantheon of myths and legends.

The Myth of Lyra

The name Lyra comes from the Greek myth of Orpheus, a musician. Lyra represents his lyre, made by the god Hermes. Orpheus' lyre produced such beautiful music that it brought inanimate objects to life and charmed the legendary sirens.

Orpheus married Eurydice, but she was killed by a snakebite, and Orpheus had to follow her to the underworld to get her back. Hades, the god of the underworld, said he could have her back as long as he didn't look at her as they left his realm. Unfortunately, Orpheus couldn't help but look, and Eurydice was lost forever. Orpheus spent the rest of his life in grief, playing his lyre. After he died, his lyre was placed in the sky as a tribute to his music and the loss of his wife. The constellation Lyra, one of the 48 constellations of antiquity, represents that lyre.

The Stars of Lyra

The IAU constellation outline of Lyra.
The IAU official constellation outline of Lyra. This also shows the location of two deep-sky objects observers can search out. IAU/Sky & Telescope. 

Constellation Lyra has only five main stars in its main figure, but the full constellation with all its boundaries contains many more. The brightest star is called Vega, or alphaLyrae. It's one of the three stars in the Summer Triangle, along with Deneb (in Cygnus) and Altair (in Aquila).

Vega, the fifth-brightest star in the nighttime sky, is an A-type star that appears to have a ring of dust around it. At 450 million years old, Vega is considered a young star. It was once our North Pole star about 14,000 years ago and will be again about the year 13,727.

summer-triangle.jpg
The Summer Triangle and the constellations that lend their stars to it. Carolyn Collins Petersen

Other interesting stars in Lyra include ε Lyrae, which is a double-double star, meaning that each of its two stars is a double star, as well. β Lyrae (the second-brightest star in the constellation) is a binary star with two members that orbit so closely that occasionally material from one star spills over to other. That causes the stars to brighten as they do their orbital dance together. Deep-sky Objects in Lyra

Lyra has a few interesting deep-sky objects. The first is called M57, or the Ring Nebula. It's a planetary nebula, the remains of a sun-like star that died and expelled its material out to space to form what looks like a ring. Actually, the cloud of star-atmosphere material is more like a sphere, but from our point of view on Earth, it looks more like a ring. This object is easiest to spot with good binoculars or a telescope. 

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The Ring Nebula as seen by Hubble Space Telescope, with a white dwarf at the heart of the Ring Nebula. This is a Hubble Space Telescope image. Through binoculars or a small telescope, the ring looks like a small greyish-green oval. NASA/ESA/STScI.

The other object in Lyra is the globular star cluster M56. It, too, can be seen with binoculars or telescope. For observers with a good telescope, Lyra also contains a galaxy called NGC 6745. It's more than 200 million light-years away, and scientists think it collided with another galaxy in the distant past. 

Scientific Findings in Lyra

The constellation Lyra is home to stars with planets that orbit them. There's a Jupiter-mass planet circling an orange star called HD 177830. Other stars nearby also have planets, including one called TrES-1b. It was discovered crossing the field of view between Earth and its parent star (called a "transit" discovery), and there's some thought the star might be somewhat like Earth. Astronomers will have to do more follow-up observations to determine what kind of planet it really is. Such planetary discoveries are part of the Kepler Telescope's mission to find stars with exoplanets. It stared at this region of the sky for years, searching for worlds among the stars of the constellations Lyra, Cygnus, and Draco.