Deneb is one of the most distant stars you will see with your eye alone. That’s because it’s one of the most luminous stars in the Milky Way galaxy. The exact distance to Deneb is unclear, with estimates ranging from about 1,425 light-years to perhaps as much as 7,000 light-years. Whatever its exact distance, when you gaze at Deneb, know that you are gazing across thousands of light-years of space.
The best estimates for Deneb’s distance likely are those obtained by the Hipparcos Space Astrometry Mission in the 1990s. A simple calculation from initial Hipparcos data gives the figure of 3,230 light-years, whereas the refined data yield just over 1,400 light-years. At any of these estimates distances, Deneb is one of the farthest stars the unaided human eye can see. It is so far, that the light that reaches the Earth today started on its journey well more than 1,000 years ago.
In order for us to see it at its enormous distance, Deneb must also be tremendously bright and energetic. Among the 20 brightest stars, only Rigel in Orion surpasses Deneb in intrinsic brightness. Deneb is an A2Ia star, which says that it is white hot (A2) and a supergiant star (Ia). Prof. James Kaler, using the figure of 2,600 light years as the distance, estimated a diameter 200 times greater than our sun, and about a quarter of a million times brighter in visible light. Considering its spectral classification (A2), Deneb must have a surface temperature between about 8500 to 9000 kelvins (roughly 14,800 to 15,700 degrees F).
Deneb is not the biggest star in the Milky Way. Betelgeuse and Antares, among others, are larger. But Deneb may well be the most energetic (based on the amount of electromagnetic radiation it produces) of the A-type stars. The famed North American nebula, a large cloud of glowing gas in the shape of the continent, likely is glowing in a process similar to fluorescence, energized by the radiation of Deneb.
How to see it
White Deneb is the 20th brightest star in the sky. It is one of the most remote stars visible to the eye alone. You can gaze at this faraway star starting in late spring, when Deneb rises over the northeastern horizon by mid-evening. A month later, Deneb is already in the sky by the time it gets dark. In standard time, the midnight culmination date is about August 1. Using Daylight Time, the midnight culmination is about August 15. The word ‘culmination’ indicates the star’s highest point in the sky.
Deneb is part of several famous star patterns, which overlap each other. It’s the brightest of the stars composing the constellation Cygnus the Swan, where it marks the Swan’s Tail. When you hear ‘deneb’ in a star name, it always means ‘tail.’ Simultaneously, Deneb marks the head of an asterism (a readily recognizable grouping of stars that is not an official constellation), known as the Northern Cross. Plus it is one of the three stars known as the Summer Triangle. The other two stars are Vega and Altair. Deneb is the northernmost and dimmest of the three Triangle stars, but its association with the other bright stars makes it easy to identify.
Deneb is circumpolar as seen from locations of about 45 degrees north latitude, roughly the northern tier of US states. In other words, from the northern U.S. and similar latitudes, Deneb never sets but instead circles round and round the pole star. It cannot ever be seen south of about 45 degrees south latitude. That includes Antarctica, far southern Argentina and Chile, and perhaps the far southern tip of New Zealand’s South Island. Aside from that, just about anyone should have a chance to see Deneb at one time or another.
History and Myth
The name Deneb derives from the Arabic Al Dhanab al Dajajah meaning Tail of the Hen. It obviously dates from an earlier incarnation of Cygnus not as a swan but as a chicken. Like many bright stars, Deneb has been called by a number of other names, but the oddest, according the Richard Hinckley Allen, who cites the Arabic name above, was Uropygium, meaning the posterior part of a bird’s body from which feathers grow, and oddly sometimes called the “Pope’s nose.”
In Chinese mythology Deneb is associated with the story of the Celestial Princess or the Weaver Girl. In this story a Girl (the star Vega) is separated from her beloved (a cowherd represented by the star Altair) by the Milky Way. Once a year, the girl and the cowherd are allowed to meet briefly when a large flock of magpies form a bridge across the starry river. Deneb represents the bridge.
Deneb’s position is RA: 20h 41m 26s, dec: +45° 16′ 49″.
Larry Sessions has written many favorite posts in EarthSky's Tonight area. He's a former planetarium director in Little Rock, Fort Worth and Denver and an adjunct faculty member at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He's a longtime member of NASA's Solar System Ambassadors program. His articles have appeared in numerous publications including Space.com, Sky & Telescope, Astronomy and Rolling Stone. His small book on world star lore, Constellations, was published by Running Press.