An ancient flying serpent soars high overhead this evening. It's a zigzagging line of faint stars between the prominent constellations Cygnus and Cassiopeia. It's high in the northeast at nightfall, and passes high overhead a few hours later.
The star pattern is known as Lacerta, the lizard. A German astronomer created the constellation several hundred years ago to fill a gap between larger constellations.
But thousands of years earlier, the Chinese knew this group of stars as a flying serpent. Their constellation included present-day Lacerta and a portion of Cygnus. Lacerta certainly looks serpentine enough. Its brightest stars form a short jagged line to the east of Deneb, the bright "tail" of Cygnus, the swan.
You need to look carefully to find Lacerta. None of its stars is brighter than about fourth magnitude, which means you need nice, dark skies to find them.
Lacerta's brightest star is Alpha Lacertae, near the constellation's northern tip. It's a white star about 90 light-years from Earth. Its color indicates that its surface is a good bit hotter than the surface of the Sun.
Lacerta's next-brightest stars are orange giants - puffed-up stars that are much larger and cooler than the Sun. But they're so far away that they don't appear all that bright.
To find the serpent, first find Cygnus, which looks like a cross, and Cassiopeia, which looks like the letter M or W. Lacerta is a twisting trail of stars directly between them.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2005, 2008
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.