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Sky watch: Vega's brilliant starlight

Over my 30-plus-year career, I've read a lot of astronomy books.

My favorite is the inspirational and romantic autobiography of the late amateur astronomer and comet-discoverer extraordinaire Leslie Peltier.

In "Starlight Nights," Peltier writes of his passion for stargazing and how, as a child many years before, he learned about his very first star: "According to the descriptive text Vega, at that very hour in the month of May, would be rising in the northeastern sky. I took the open book outside . . . looked up toward the northeast and there, just above the plum tree blooming by the well, was Vega."

Vega, which glistens in the northeastern sky during May evenings, is the most brilliant star in the constellation of Lyra, the harp, and it's one of the three bright stars of the Summer Triangle that will appear in the eastern sky later this summer.

Even the most casual stargazer will notice Vega's flickering and sparkling against the dark sky. This dramatic twinkling is due not to the star itself but to the turbulent air through which its light must travel on its way to our eyes.

Gaze at Vega and you'll be looking roughly in the direction that our sun and our entire solar system is racing at about 12 miles per second.No need to worry about a collision, though. Vega lies some 25 light years away -- about 150 trillion miles -- so nearly 4,000 centuries will pass during our journey.

This brilliant white star is about three times larger and more massive than our sun and produces some 50 times more power than our star. As a result, it will exhaust its fuel in only one-tenth the time, making its expected life span only about one billion years.


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