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Cygnus Rising

June 30, 2014

One of the most graceful and beautiful of all constellations soars high overhead on summer nights. Cygnus, the swan, lines up in the east and northeast in early evening. The swan’s body is roughly parallel to the horizon, with its wings extended above and below. The bright star Deneb marks its tail, with the double star Albireo representing its beak.

Cygnus is also known as the Northern Cross. In fact, this pattern is so bright and obvious that quite a few cultures have depicted it as a cross.

For the Maya of Central America, the cross may have played a role in the succession of kings.

Evidence of this role comes from a temple in the Mayan city of Palenque. Murals in the temple depict starry crosses, which some scientists have interpreted as Cygnus. The temple is aligned toward the northwest, to the point on the horizon where Deneb set.

Some of the artwork depicts the life of King Chan Bahlum. He was appointed heir to the throne around June 12th of the year 641. From Palenque, Deneb was rising around sunset on that date. And Chan Bahlum became king in January of 684 — a time when Deneb was just becoming visible in the morning sky, and dropping from view at dusk — in perfect view from the temple.

Look for Deneb and the rest of Cygnus throughout the night. The swan is in the east and northeast as darkness falls, and flies high overhead during the night.

Tomorrow: the Moon and the heart of the lion.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014

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