(This is the first of our monthly “Star Bright” posts for the 2021–2022 homeschool year. Print your own River Houses Star Calendar to follow along with us, and add your name to our free weekly mailing list to get great homeschool teaching ideas delivered right to your mailbox all through the year.)
September is the first month of Cygnus Term in the River Houses, and as our monthly star calendar will tell you, September’s Great Star is Deneb, the brightest star in the constellation Cygnus the Swan (naturally enough). Its formal designation is α Cygni — “alpha of Cygnus.” Cygnus and Deneb are high in the east at dusk now, passing overhead in the evening and flying to the west as the night goes on.
If you want to introduce your students to Deneb and Cygnus you can start with some basic astronomy and astronomical mythology from your backyard star guide:
Cygnus lies in what for observers is a dense and fascinating part of the sky. The bird’s wings span the Milky Way at a location packed with stars and an assortment of deep-sky objects. Owing to the positions of its bright stars it is sometimes called the Northern Cross — the northern parallel to the brilliant Southern Cross constellation in the Southern Hemisphere. You will see Cygnus highest in the sky in late summer and early fall, with its head pointing south like a bird on its migratory path toward warmer climates.
Deneb, the alpha star and tail of the bird, is a brilliant magnitude 1 star that joins Altair and Vega to form the Summer Triangle. Deneb is 25 times more massive than our sun and 60,000 times more luminous. (Backyard Guide to the Night Sky, page 216)
That’s plenty for beginning students — your little lesson is done. If you want to get more advanced, the Wikipedia page on Deneb is packed with additional information on everything from astrometry to cultural history.
Deneb is an enormous blue-white supergiant, about 200 times the diameter of our sun. If it were placed at the center of our solar system it would extend out to engulf the orbits of Mercury, Venus, and the Earth. Deneb is estimated to be about 2,600 light-years away, so the photons striking your eye when you gaze upon it were actually emitted by the star 2,600 years ago — when the ancient Greek poet Sappho was composing her lyrics in the eastern Aegean — and they have been traveling at the speed of light to greet us ever since. The name Deneb is Arabic for tail — it’s the tail of the swan for us, but for medieval Arabic astronomers it was usually imagined as the tail of a heavenly hen.
Sometime this month, as the new homeschool year begins, take your students out at dusk and introduce them to this giant sun, and teach them its name, and so give them a new friend for life.
What astronomical observations and stellar sightings will you be making in your homeschool this Cygnus Term? 😊
❡ Alpha and beta and gamma, oh my: Most of the principal stars within each constellation have both old vernacular names — Vega, Sirius, Arcturus, and so on — as well as more formal scientific designations. The German astronomer Johann Bayer (1572–1625) devised the formal system of star designations that is still in common use today. In Bayer’s system, the stars in each constellation, from brightest to dimmest, are assigned a lowercase letter of the Greek alphabet: α (alpha, brightest), β (beta, second brightest), γ (gamma, third brightest), δ (delta, fourth brightest), and so on. This letter designation is combined with the name of the constellation in its Latin possessive (genitive) form: Lyra becomes Lyrae (“of Lyra”), Canis Major becomes Canis Majoris (“of Canis Major”), and so on. The brightest star in the constellation Lyra (the star Vega) thus becomes α Lyrae (“alpha of Lyra”), the brightest star in Canis Major (the star Sirius) becomes α Canis Majoris (“alpha of Canis Major”), and so on, through all 24 Greek letters and all 88 constellations. How bright would you expect, say, the σ (sigma) star of Orion to be? Not very bright — it’s far down the alphabet — but σ Orionis happens to mark the top of Orion’s sword, so even though it’s not very bright it’s still notable and easy to locate on a dark night. ✨
❡ Star bright: The brightness of a star as we see it in our night sky is its magnitude — or more properly, its apparent magnitude. The scale of star magnitudes was developed long before modern measuring instruments were invented, so it can be a little bit confusing for beginners. Originally, the brightest stars in the sky were called “first magnitude” and the less-bright stars “second magnitude,” “third magnitude,” and so on, down to the dimmest stars visible to the naked eye, which were called “sixth magnitude.” In the nineteenth century the star Vega (our August star) was chosen as the standard brightness reference and its value on the magnitude scale was defined to be zero (0.0). Five steps in magnitude (from 0.0 to 5.0 or from 1.0 to 6.0) was defined to be a change in brightness of 100 times: a star 100 times dimmer than Vega (0.0) was defined to be a magnitude 5.0 star. Vega is not quite the brightest star is the sky, however, so the scale also had to be extended into negative numbers: Sirius (our March star), for example, is magnitude –1.5, about three times brighter than Vega (at 0.0). The planet Venus at its brightest is about magnitude –4.2; the full moon is about magnitude –12.9; the sun is magnitude –26.7. By contrast, the dimmest stars visible to the naked eye in a populated, light-polluted area are about magnitude 3.0; the dimmest stars visible under very dark conditions are about magnitude 6.5. The Hubble Space Telescope in orbit around the earth has photographed distant stars and galaxies below magnitude 30, the dimmest celestial objects humans have seen so far. 🌃
❡ And all dishevelled wandering stars: How far away are the stars? Do they all occupy a single celestial “dome” that rotates through the heavens (as some ancient and medieval astronomers believed), or are they scattered through space at different individual distances? Astronomers had long suspected that the fixed stars existed at different distances from us, but early attempts to measure those distances failed. It was not until the early 1800s that instruments and measuring techniques became precise enough to allow the first stellar distances to be calculated using the technique of parallax. Parallax is the displacement in the apparent position of an object with respect to the background when an observer moves from side to side. It’s an ordinary phenomenon you experience every day — it’s how we judge distances as we move through the landscape. Stellar parallaxes are extremely small — fractions of an arc-second (one 3600th of a degree) — and they are calculated by measuring a star’s position against the background at opposite sides of the earth’s orbit, six months apart. (That’s the astronomical equivalent of taking one step to the side.) Vega, our August star, was one of the first stars to have its parallax measured; modern estimates put it at about 0.13 arc-seconds. Apply some trigonometry, and that yields a distance of about 25 light-years. 🔭
❡ Watchers of the skies: Teaching your students to recognize the constellations is one of the simplest and most enduring gifts you can give them. We recommend the handy Backyard Guide to the Night Sky as a general family reference — it will help you identify all the northern hemisphere constellations and will point out many highlights, including the names and characteristics of the brightest stars. Your recommended world atlas also has beautiful maps of the whole northern and southern hemisphere night skies on plates 121–122 (10th and 11th eds.). Why not find a dark-sky spot near you this month and spend some quality homeschool time beneath the starry vault. 🌌
❡ First star I see tonight: This is one of our regular Homeschool Astronomy posts featuring twelve of the most notable stars of the northern hemisphere night sky. Download and print your own copy of our River Houses Star Calendar and follow along with us as we visit a different Great Star each month — and make each one of them a homeschool friend for life. 🌟