Albireo – also called Beta Cygni – isn’t the brightest star in the sky. It looks like an ordinary single star to the eye. But peer at it through a telescope, and you’ll learn why stargazers love Albireo. With a telescope, you’ll easily see Albireo as a beautiful double star, with the brighter star gold and the dimmer star blue.
How can you see Albireo as two stars? They are best viewed at 30X (“30 power” or a magnification of 30). Unless you have exceedingly powerful binoculars, mounted on a tripod, binoculars won’t show you Albireo as two stars, but any small telescope will. When you do see Albireo as two stars, notice the striking color contrast between the two.
How can you spot Albireo in the night sky? It’s easy to find, if you can located Cygnus the Swan. Cygnus has an easy-to-recognize shape, that of a cross, and the constellation is also known as the Northern Cross. The brightest star in Cygnus, called Deneb, marks the head of the Cross or the Tail of the Swan. Albireo marks the base of the Cross or the Head of Cygnus.
The two stars of Albireo constitute a true binary star system. In other words, its two stars aren’t merely a chance alignment as seen from Earth. Instead, they revolve around a common center of mass.
These two stars lie quite far apart, however, and might take as long as 100,000 years to orbit one another. Even though these two stars appear close together in a telescope, keep in mind that you’re looking at a system that’s 430 light-years away.
By the way, the brighter of the two stars in the Albireo system has been found with advanced telescopic techniques to be two stars as well. Thus there are at least three stars in this system.
Bottom line: The star Albireo – also known as Beta Cygni – in the constellation Cygnus, is a famous double star. A small telescope reveals that one star is blue and the other is gold.
Bruce McClure has served as lead writer for EarthSky's popular Tonight pages since 2004. He's a sundial aficionado, whose love for the heavens has taken him to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and sailing in the North Atlantic, where he earned his celestial navigation certificate through the School of Ocean Sailing and Navigation. He also writes and hosts public astronomy programs and planetarium programs in and around his home in upstate New York.