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Thursday, December 13 , 2018, 4:19 am | Fair 46º


Dennis Mammana: A Love Story for the Ages Behind the Summer Triangle

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View a stellar Chinese Valentine’s Day after dark this week. (Creators.com illustration)

There’s a wonderful Chinese story that tells of two lovers, a poor, orphaned cowherd and a young, beautiful weaving maiden who was the seventh daughter of the Emperor of Heaven. The two were separated and banished to the skies. The young maiden settled at the star Vega, and the cowherd at the star Altair, forever separated by the band of the Milky Way.

When the magpies heard this sad tale, they decided to get together to form a bridge across the Milky Way, represented by the star Deneb, so the two lovers could reunite for one day each summer. That day — the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of the Chinese calendar — is now known as Chinese Valentine’s Day, and this year it occurs on Friday, Aug. 17.

This week, the star Vega — also known to the Chinese as the Weaving Maid Star — shines very brightly high overhead just after dark, while Altair — known in China as the Cowherd Star — lies below and to its south. Regular readers of my columns may recognize these stars, along with Deneb, as those form the famous Summer Triangle, visible in our skies at this time every year.

The brightest of this stellar trio — and highest in the sky — is Vega, the most prominent star in the tiny constellation of Lyra, the harp. This brilliant white star has a diameter and mass some three times greater than that of our sun, and it produces about 50 times more power.

As a result, astronomers believe that Vega will likely exhaust its fuel in only one-tenth the time, making its expected life span only about 1 billion years.

The southeasternmost of the three stars is Altair, the brightest in the constellation of Aquila, the eagle. Its name comes from the Arabic “Al Nasr al Tair,” meaning “the flying eagle.” Altair is one of the nearest stars to us, lying about 96 trillion miles (17 light-years) away. In other words, its light has been traveling through space for roughly 17 years, and its photons of light that strike our eyes tonight have been traveling through space since 2001.

Finally, farthest to the north lies Deneb, located in the tail of the great celestial swan Cygnus. Deneb lies some 9,000 trillion miles (about 1,500 light-years) from us — so far that we see it as it appeared in the sixth century. The light that leaves the star tonight won’t arrive here until early in the 36th century.

Deneb is not only the brightest star in Cygnus but also one of the most luminous in our entire galaxy. It shines with a luminosity equivalent to that of more than 261,000 suns. Just imagine ... this stellar powerhouse generates more light in just one day than our sun has since the days of Marco Polo at the end of the 13th century!

While it’s true that anyone can see the Summer Triangle on any night during the summer, I hope you’ll head out on the evening of Friday, Aug. 17, to recall the two separated lovers and check out the stars of the story.

And I wish you all a stellar Chinese Valentine’s Day!

Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. The opinions expressed are his own.

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