Lyra Constellation – The Night Sky’s Harp

In this article, we’ll be sharing with you everything you need to know about the constellation of Lyra, including how to find it, deep space objects contained within it, and how to use it to find other night sky objects more easily.

The Constellation of Lyra

Lyra is named for the lyre which is a small harp and an ancient musical instrument.

Lyra represents the lyre of Orpheus (musician and poet). According to the Ancient Greeks, the lyre was invented by Hermes and given to his half-brother Apollo (the god of music). Apollo gave the instrument to Orpheus, a mortal child.

When Orpheus was killed by Bacchantes, his lyre was thrown into a river. Zeus sent an eagle to get the lyre and both of them were placed in the sky.

Lyra constellation is often depicted as a vulture or eagle carrying the lyre of Orpheus in its wings or beak.

To help you spot Lyra, here’s what SkySafari 6 shows.

Picture of the lyre over the constellation of Lyra
Lyra the Lyre, click for a full screen version

Lyra has an area of only 286 square degrees making it one of the smaller constellations. It is only the 52nd largest of the 88 recognized constellations.

The constellation is shaped like a parallelogram with a tail to the bright star Vega. You will find Vega the easiest part of Lyra to locate because it is the 5th brightest star in the sky and the second brightest star in the northern hemisphere.

Together with the stars Deneb in Cygnus and Altair in Aquila, Vega forms one corner of an asterism known as the Summer Triangle.

summer triangle asterism
The summer triangle asterism formed from Deneb, Vega, and Altair

If you’ve watched the annual Lyrid meteor shower (April 21-22 peak), you may also be familiar with this constellation for which the Lyrids are named.

Lyra’s patch of the sky is larger than just its asterism. The image below shows the IAU boundary for the constellation of Lyra, between Cygnus and Hercules. The faintest stars in the image are magnitude 5.0.

Area of Lyra constellation from SkySafari 6 – Click for full screen

In the next section discover how to find Lyra.

How To Find Lyra In The Night Sky

Lyra is part of the Hercules family of constellations and is visible to observers at latitudes between +90° and -40°. Observers in the Northern Hemisphere can see it in evenings from May to December. Its best viewing is in August when it is almost overhead at 10pm.

Lyra is perhaps easiest to find if you first carry out a naked eye hunt for Cygnus the swan. The bright star Vega resides under the northwest ‘wing’ of Cygnus, forming a rough square with Albireo, Sadr, and Al Fawaris. See the image below for details, which can be clicked for a full screen version.

How to find Lyra using Cygnus
Vega is a corner of a square with Albireo, Sadr and Al Fawaris in Cygnus

To find Lyra’s exact position for your location on any night, use software such as Stellarium (free) or SkySafari.

Lyra’s Brightest Stars

While Lyra is a small constellation, it has some very interesting stars, even if not many of them are bright. The image below shows the star names to around magnitude 5.

The brightest stars of Lyra with their names
The brightest stars of Lyra named. Click for full screen

Alpha Lyrae (Vega) – This blue-white, variable double star has a magnitude of 0.02 and is the brightest star in Lyra. As we saw above, Vega forms the western vertex of the Summer Triangle and it’s 25.3 light-years away.

Vega has a magnitude 12.0 second component which is ~221 arcseconds away.

Vega is derived from the Arabic phrase meaning ‘swooping eagle’ or ‘the falling vulture’.

Beta Lyrae (Sheliak) – This variable double star system has a magnitude of 3.51 and is the third brightest star in Lyra. Sheliak’s two components are so close together that they can’t be resolved.

Its magnitude changes from 3.4 to 4.6 over a period of 12.9 days as a result of the mutual eclipsing of its 2 stars. Beta Lyrae is ~880 light-years away.

Sheliak means ‘Lyra’.

Gamma Lyrae (Sulafat, Sulaphat) – This variable double star has a magnitude of 3.25 and is the second brightest star in Lyra.

The blue-white primary star and magnitude 12.0 secondary star are 13.5 arcseconds apart.

Gamma Lyrae is 630 light-years away and Sulafat means ‘tortoise’ in Arabic.

Delta Lyrae  – This is yet another variable double star that consists of magnitude 5.6 Delta1 Lyrae and magnitude 4.3 Delta2 Lyrae. Together they are the fourth brightest star in Lyra.

This an optical double because Delta1 Lyrae is 1080 light-years away but its companion is 1280 light-years away.

Epsilon Lyrae (The Double Double) –This quadruple star system is one of the most well known binary stars. The pair are separated by 208 arcseconds and are easily resolvable through binoculars.

Episilon1 Lyrae has a magnitude of 5.0 and has two component stars separated by 2.8 arcseconds with magnitudes of 4.7 and 6.2.

Episilon2 Lyrae has a magnitude of 6.1 and has two components separated by 2.2 arcseconds. They have magnitudes of 5.1 and 5.5. 

Epsilon Lyrae is 180 light-years away and is ~1.7° southeast of Vega.

Zeta Lyrae –  This variable double star contains a magnitude 4.3 primary and a magnitude 15.8 secondary, beyond the reach of most backyard scopes.

Zeta Lyrae is 152 light-years away. 

Eta Lyrae (Aladfar) – This magnitude 4.40, double star is a blue-white subgiant variable with an unknown period of variability.

The magnitude 8.6 secondary star is 28.4 arcseconds away from the primary.

Eta Lyrae is 1388 light-years away and the 6th brightest star in Vega. Its traditional name means ‘the talons’.

Theta Lyrae – This orange-red, variable double star has a magnitude of 4.3. The secondary component has a magnitude of 10.1 and is 98.8 arcseconds away.

Theta Lyrae is the fifth brightest star in Lyra and is 832 light-years away.

Lambda Lyrae – This magnitude 4.9 variable star is orange-red in color. This eruptive variable has an irregular period.

Lambda Lyrae is 1106 light-years away.

Mu Lyrae (Alathfar) – This magnitude 5.1 star is a white subgiant 439 light-years away. Alathfar also means ‘the talons’.

R Lyrae – This 4.2 magnitude, orange-red giant, is a semi-regular variable star changing in magnitude from 3.9 to 5.0 over a period of 46.0 days.

R Lyrae is 298 light-years away.

Star Hopping From Lyra

Lyra’s best known star hops are to the globular cluster M56, and the Ring Nebula (M57).

Location of ring nebula M57 and M56 within Lyra constellation
Locations of M56 and the Ring Nebula (M57), click for full screen

M56 – Locate the Summer Triangle, Vega and then Gamma Lyrae at the southern tip of the parallelogram. Follow the chain of four dim stars from Gamma Lyrae southeast then hop ~0.5°  south of the last star to M56.

M57 – Locate the Summer Triangle, Vega, then Gamma Lyrae at the southern tip of the parallelogram. M57 is located ~ 2/3 of the distance from Gamma Lyrae to Beta Lyrae.

Objects To See Within Lyra

Lyra contains two Messier objects and a handful of other deep sky targets for small telescopes.

M56 (NGC 6779) – This globular cluster has a magnitude of 8.3 and an apparent size of 8.8 arcminutes. It is ~32,900 light-years away and is at right ascension 19h 17m 23s and declination +30° 13’ 14”.

M57 (NGC 6720, The Ring Nebula) – This planetary nebula has a magnitude of 8.80 and an apparent size of 1.4 x 1.1 arcminutes. It is 2,300 light-years away and is at right ascension 18h 54m 21s and declination +33° 3’ 15”.

M57, The Ring Nebula in Lyra
M57, The Ring Nebula (source)

NGC 6791 – This open cluster has a magnitude of 9.5 and an apparent size of 10.0 arcminutes. It is 16,000 light-years away and is at right ascension 19h 20m 53s and declination +37° 46’ 00”.

NGC 6745 – This galaxy has a magnitude of 13.2 and an apparent size of 0.9 x 0.5 arcminutes. It is at right ascension 19h 02m 21s and declination +40° 46’ 25”.

Summary

While Lyra is neither a large constellation nor a bright one, it is easy to find and contains several objects suitable for small telescopes.

That list includes double stars, 2 Messier objects, and other deep sky objects.

Look for Vega this summer and enjoy the wonders of Lyra.


Written by Tanya C. Forde