Aquila the eagle is one of nine constellations named after birds and is best viewed July through October, flying within the Milky Way.
Aquila is well named, as it has the appearance of a bird with outstretched wings. Looking up at the eagle, you can see a perfectly straight line of stars.
The center and brightest star, Altair, is seen as the head. The tips of the wings extend further to the southwest and northwest. Its bright star, Altair is one of the three bright stars (in three different constellations) that form the summer triangle.
There are numerous myths surrounding Aquila.
In one, Aquila was Zeus’s servant (Zeus is also known as Jupiter). In another, Aquila was the great eagle who devoured Prometheus’ liver as a punishment for giving fire to humans.
Indian folklore tells of the line of three stars (which includes Altair) revered as the footprints of the Hindu God Vishnu.
In some Asian traditions, Altair is the shepherd who married the Weaving Princess (the bright star Vega).
In Greek and Roman mythology, Aquila flew over the island of Crete and snatched up Ganymeade (King Tros of Troy’s son) as he was tending a herd of sheep. Zeus had chosen the boy to become the water bearer to the gods in Olympus.
For taking his son, Zeus compensated King Tros with a herd of immortal horses and then renamed the boy Aquarius. (In another version, Zeus disguised himself as an eagle and carried Ganymeade to Mt. Olympus).
Within this constellation are: Altair, one of Earth’s closest neighbors, a 0 magnitude white subgiant star, 17 light years away and almost 100 times brighter than the Sun; Tarazed, the second-brightest star, 460 light years away; Alshain, 48 light years away. They form a line of three stars sometimes thought to resemble Orion’s Belt. Also, look for NGC 6709, an open star cluster.
The Cameron Park Rotary Club Community Observatory, 6699 Campus Drive in Placerville, is the place to visit to view the constellations and other wonders of the sky. It is open free to the public on clear sky weekend. Donations are welcome to support the maintenance of the facility and telescopes. Be sure to “Like” the observatory on Facebook and find driving directions and other observatory information at communityobservatory.com or 530-344-5707.