Lyra (“the Lyre”) is one of the smaller constellations, taking up an area of just 286 sq/deg of the northern sky between latitudes +90 and -40 degrees. It does, however, contains the 5th brightest star in the sky, Vega, which also forms part of the famous asterism of stars known as the Summer Triangle. Amongst the other many spectacular astronomical objects contained within Lyra is the beautiful Ring Nebula, as well as nine stars with confirmed planets. Lyra is the 52nd biggest of the 88 recognized constellations, and is visible in the northern hemisphere from April to December, and in the southern hemisphere in winter.
Hercules Family of Constellations
Lyra is part of the Hercules Family of constellations, which contains 19 members, including Hercules, Sagitta, Aquila, Lyra, Cygnus, Vulpecula, Hydra, Sextans, Crater, Corvus, Ophiuchus, Serpens, Scutum, Centaurus, Lupus, Corona Australis, Ara, Triangulum Australe, and Crux.
Lyra is taken to represent the lyre of Orpheus, a legendary Greek musician who was given the instrument by Apollo, and taught its use by the Muses. According to classical mythology, Orpheus was the greatest of all musicians, and was said to have been able to charm even stones with his music. His many great adventures included trying to retrieve his wife Eurydice from the Underworld, but in the end he was killed by the Bacchantes, who then cast his lyre into a river. Zeus however, sent an eagle to recover the lyre, and placed both the Lyre and the eagle among the stars.
– Vega (Alpha Lyrae) is the night sky’s fifth most luminous star (0.03 mag), and the second most luminous in the northern celestial hemisphere behind Arcturus (-0.04). It is a white dwarf (A0V) found 25 light-years away that has just over twice our sun’s mass, and 54 times its luminosity. This 455 million year old star is also a very fast spinner, with an equatorial rotational velocity of 274 km/s, which amounts to 86% of the velocity required to make it fly apart under its own centrifugal force. Around 12,000 BC, Vega was the Pole Star, which it will be again in about 13,727 years due to precession. The name Vega derives from the Arabic for “swooping eagle” or “vulture.”
– Sulafat (Gamma Lyrae), the second brightest star in Lyra, is a blue-white giant (B9 III) located around 620 light years (3.261 mag) from our solar system with a visual magnitude of 3.261. It is about 15 times bigger than our sun, twice as hot, and has a relatively fast rotational velocity of 72 km/s.
– Sheliak (Beta Lyrae), the constellation’s third brightest star, is a binary star system found 960 light years distant. It has a visual magnitude of 3.52, although being a variable star this can range from between 3.4 and 4.3 as the system’s two stars orbit and periodically eclipse one another over a 12.9414 day period. The binary system’s primary component is a blue-white giant (B7II) that is 30 times bigger than the Sun, 13 times more massive, and around 25,000 times more luminous.
Other stars of interest in Lyra includes the white subgiant Alathfar; the yellow dwarf Gliese 758; the red giant R Lyrae; the red dwarf Kuiper 90; and the orange giants Kappa Lyrae and Lambda Lyrae.