Starwatch: The eagle is landing — stay out of the way!
There are so many birds flying soaring in the night sky. Out of the 88 total constellations, nine of them are birds.
The baddest bird in the heavens without a doubt is Aquila the Eagle. According to Greek mythology, Aquila was the favorite pet of Zeus, the king of the gods of Mount Olympus. Like most of the members in the hierarchy of Greek gods, Zeus was ruthless with his supreme power! Do what he says or else — but even if you did, you could still be at the bad end of his rage.
Before I continue with Zeus’s cruel legacy, let me tell you how to find his pet eagle. As soon as it’s dark enough, by around 6 p.m., Aquila is flying low in the southwestern sky. The main part of Aquila resembles a sideways diamond that outlines the wingspan of the eagle. Its head allegedly sits on the diamond, but there are no stars bright enough to depict it. You have to rely fully on your imagination. Below the diamond is a faint crooked line of stars that allegedly outlines the tail of the aggressive eagle.
Just below and a little to the lower right of the tail is a very faint but cute little open star cluster of young stars. It’s formally known as Messier Object 11 or M11, but its nickname is the “The Wild Duck Cluster.” You should be able to easily see it with a small to moderate telescope or even with a good pair of binoculars. Some claim that M11 resembles a duck landing on a lake. I’ve tried to see the ducky in that cluster but I’m afraid it’s lost to me.
Astronomically, M11 is a young cluster of about 500 stars only about 220 million years old, which believe it or not makes them toddler stars. The Wild duck is nearly 6,200 light-years away.
The brightest star of Aquila is Altair, marking Aquila’s heart. Altair is easy to find because it is one of three bright “Summer Triangle” stars, which is still visible even though we’re entering the closing weeks of autumn. It’s still hanging in the western sky.
The Summer Triangle isn’t an official constellation, but its stars — Altair, Vega, and Deneb — are the brightest stars in that part of the sky, and each one of them is the brightest star in its own constellation. Altair is the moderately bright star on the lower right corner of the triangle.
Before I share with you Aquila’s story, I should warn you that’s it gory and violent, Before he became Zeus’s favorite pet, the king of the gods commissioned Aquila the Eagle to seek out a servant boy for the gods of Mount Olympus, someone who would be at the beck and call of the deities.
As ordered, Aquila flew recon missions over the countryside in search of a young man to kidnap. One morning he came upon a shepherd named Ganymede, who was tending his sheep. Aquila studied how hard and dedicated the young shepherd was and promptly plucked him away from the sheep and flew him up to Mount Olympus. At first Ganymede missed his family and his sheep, but in time the job grew on him. He became buddies with many of the gods and served as their bartender, which made him extremely popular. He also didn’t mind being around all of the beautiful goddesses!
Zeus couldn’t be more grateful to Aquila, and soon the king of the gods adopted the faithful eagle as a pet. After a little training, Zeus trusted Aquila with noble duties, such as occasionally delivering Zeus’s thunderbolts to Earth. After a few short years, Aquila became Zeus’s personal messenger as well as Zeus’s diabolical “hit bird.” Anytime Zeus felt it necessary to enforce or punish, he called on Aquila with his razor sharp beak to carve the violator up. The evil eagle would punish mortals and gods alike with great dispatch and no mercy.
Among his enemies Zeus wanted to punish Prometheus, one of the old gods of the Titan family, because he gave humans the gift of fire. Zeus disapproved. He deemed fire as too great of a gift to bestow on mere mortals. Zeus was so enraged that he had Prometheus chained naked to a pillar, and every single day from dawn to dusk Aquila tore through his flesh and chewed up his liver. Since Prometheus was a god and immortal, his liver healed up every night, only to be pecked and chewed by the razor beak of Aquila the very next day. This went on for months on end until the great Greek hero Hercules finally shot the evil eagle in the heart.
Zeus memorialized his faithful hit bird by placing his body among the stars so it could soar in the heavens. This time of year, the celestial evil eagle is flying low looking for a place to land. Don’t get in the way of its razor talons and beak! They will leave a mark!