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Editorial Office, E. Cygnus. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 17 April 2024).
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Editorial Office, Encyclopedia. "Cygnus." Encyclopedia. Web. 08 March, 2024.

Cygnus, known as the Swan, is a prominent constellation in the northern celestial hemisphere. Its distinctive shape resembles a flying bird with outstretched wings, earning it the nickname "the Northern Cross." Cygnus is rich in celestial wonders, including the famous binary star system Albireo, the North America Nebula, and the Veil Nebula complex.

astronomy constellation IAU

1. Introduction

Cygnus, known as the Swan, is a striking constellation located in the northern celestial hemisphere. Its distinctive shape resembles a flying bird with outstretched wings, earning it the nickname "the Northern Cross." At its heart lies the bright star Deneb, one of the brightest stars in the night sky and the brightest in Cygnus. Deneb serves as the constellation's alpha star and marks the tail of the celestial swan. Celestial coordinates place Cygnus in the northern sky, with right ascension ranging from approximately 19 hours to 22 hours and declination ranging from approximately +27 degrees to +61 degrees (Figure 1). Its location along the plane of the Milky Way makes it a prime viewing area for observing deep-sky objects such as star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies.

Cygnus is home to a variety of notable celestial objects, including the famous binary star system Albireo, the North America Nebula, and the Veil Nebula complex. These objects, along with many others, make Cygnus a popular destination for astronomers and astrophotographers seeking to explore the wonders of the cosmos.

Figure 1. IAU chart of Cygnus. Source: Credit: IAU and Sky & Telescope. Reproduced under CC BY 4.0 license.

2. Historical Background and Mythology

In Greek mythology, Cygnus is often associated with several prominent myths and figures. One of the most famous tales involving Cygnus is the story of Zeus and Leda. According to legend, Zeus, the king of the gods, transformed himself into a swan to seduce Leda, the wife of King Tyndareus of Sparta. As a result of their union, Leda laid two eggs, from which hatched the divine twins Castor and Pollux, also known as the Dioscuri, and Helen of Troy. In some versions of the myth, Cygnus is depicted as one of Zeus's many disguises, highlighting the constellation's association with transformation and divine intervention.

Another notable figure associated with Cygnus in Greek mythology is Orpheus, the legendary musician and poet. According to myth, after Orpheus's tragic death at the hands of the Maenads, his lyre was thrown into the river by his grieving companions. Moved by Orpheus's music, the gods transformed him into a swan and placed him among the stars. In some versions of the myth, Cygnus is identified as Orpheus, forever immortalized in the night sky as a constellation.

Cygnus also features prominently in the mythology of other cultures around the world. In Norse mythology, the constellation is associated with the story of the Valkyrie, winged maidens who chose the bravest warriors to join Odin in Valhalla. The swan-shaped constellation is said to represent one of the Valkyries' winged steeds, soaring through the heavens to carry fallen heroes to their final resting place.

In indigenous Australian cultures, Cygnus holds significance as an important navigational marker and cultural symbol. Aboriginal peoples of Australia often interpret the stars of Cygnus as a celestial swan, with the dark rifts in the Milky Way representing the bird's body. The constellation's appearance in the night sky signaled the changing seasons and guided travelers across the vast Australian landscape, making it an essential part of indigenous navigation practices and storytelling traditions.

3. Notable Stars

Deneb (Alpha Cygni): Deneb is the brightest star in Cygnus and one of the most luminous stars in the night sky. It is a blue-white supergiant located approximately 2,600 light-years away from Earth. Deneb is estimated to be around 200,000 times more luminous than the Sun and is one of the vertices of the Summer Triangle asterism. Its name, "Deneb," is derived from the Arabic word for "tail," as it marks the tail of the celestial swan.

Albireo (Beta Cygni): Albireo is a striking binary star system located in the head of the Swan. It consists of a bright yellow-orange star (Albireo A) and a fainter blue companion (Albireo B). Albireo A is a K-type giant star, while Albireo B is a B-type main-sequence star. The pair provides a beautiful color contrast when observed through a telescope, making Albireo a popular target for amateur astronomers.

Sadr (Gamma Cygni): Sadr is a bright star located in the body of the Swan. It is a yellow-white supergiant approximately 1,800 light-years away from Earth. Sadr is one of the brightest stars in Cygnus and serves as a significant marker for navigating the constellation. Its name, "Sadr," is derived from the Arabic word for "chest," as it marks the breast of the celestial swan.

Gienah (Epsilon Cygni): Gienah is a binary star system located in the neck of the Swan. It consists of a primary star and a fainter companion, separated by a distance of about 85 astronomical units. The primary star is a blue-white subgiant approximately 72 light-years away from Earth. Gienah is one of the brighter stars in Cygnus and is easily visible to the naked eye.

Delta Cygni: Delta Cygni is a binary star system located near the tail of the Swan. It consists of two main-sequence stars orbiting each other with a period of about 11.7 years. The primary star is a white A-type star, while the companion is a fainter yellow-white star. Delta Cygni is a close visual binary, meaning the two stars appear close together in the sky.

4. Deep-Sky Objects

North America Nebula (NGC 7000): The North America Nebula is a large emission nebula located in the central part of Cygnus. Its distinctive shape resembles the continent of North America, hence its name. The nebula is illuminated by young, hot stars embedded within it, causing the surrounding hydrogen gas to glow. The North America Nebula is a favorite target for astrophotographers due to its striking appearance and relatively low surface brightness.

Pelican Nebula (IC 5070): The Pelican Nebula is an H II region located adjacent to the North America Nebula in Cygnus. It is named for its resemblance to a pelican, with the dark nebula representing the bird's body and the surrounding emission nebula its wings. Like the North America Nebula, the Pelican Nebula is illuminated by young, massive stars, which ionize the surrounding hydrogen gas, causing it to emit light.

Veil Nebula (NGC 6960, NGC 6992, NGC 6995, NGC 6979): The Veil Nebula is a supernova remnant located in the western part of Cygnus. It is the remnants of a supernova explosion that occurred thousands of years ago. The nebula is composed of several intricate filaments of glowing gas, which are the remnants of the outer layers of the star that exploded. The Veil Nebula is a challenging but rewarding target for amateur astronomers, especially when observed through a telescope with narrowband filters.

Cygnus X-1: Cygnus X-1 is a famous X-ray binary system located in the constellation Cygnus. It consists of a black hole orbiting a massive blue supergiant star named HDE 226868. Cygnus X-1 was the first celestial object widely accepted as a black hole candidate and has been extensively studied by astronomers. The black hole's high-mass companion star periodically emits X-rays as it accretes material from the star's stellar wind.

NGC 6819: NGC 6819 is an open star cluster located in the eastern part of Cygnus. It is estimated to be around 2.4 billion years old and contains over 100 stars. NGC 6819 is notable for its relatively dense core and its central concentration of brighter stars.

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Update Date: 08 Mar 2024