The Seasonal Almanac: Identifying Summer Stars in the Sky

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Blue Vega (the "Weaver Maid") is the brightest summer star, shining almost directly overhead.

The Seasonal Almanac shares astronomical and nature events, this issue includes information on identifying summer stars.

To glimpse the heavens’ most legendary star-crossed lovers when identifying summer stars, glance up on any clear August night when the moon shines dimly in the evening sky (this year, the first few and the last ten days of the month are a good bet). There you will see, between 9 and 10 P.M., blue Vega (the “Weaver Maid”). It is the brightest summer star, shining almost directly overhead. At the same time, high in the south-southeast, you will find a star only slightly less bright, the yellow-white Altair (the “Cowherd”). Running between them — if your sky is dark and clear enough — will be the soft combined glow of the summer Milky Way, those countless stars too distant to be distinguished by the naked eye.

According to a millennia-old Chinese myth, the Weaver Maid and Cowherd fell in love and were married. All might have remained happy had the young lovers not been so taken with each other that they neglected their duties in the heavens. As punishment, the gods separated Vega and Altair, casting them to either side of the Heavenly River (the Milky Way). But the deities were not without pity for the grieving lovers: on the “seventh day of the seventh moon” all of the magpies of the world were allowed to gather and form with their wings a fluttering bridge across the Milky Way, uniting the lovers once each year. The tale was later adopted and adapted in Korea as well as in Japan, where it gave rise to the holiday of Tanabata, originally observed on July 7. Today Tanabata is celebrated with lively, multiday festivals beginning about one week into August, when, according to the now globally observed civil calendar, the seventh day of the seventh moon occurs.