Vega is a star in more ways than one. The large and notably bright burning ball of space-bound gas that is about 25 light years from the Earth has achieved celebrity and notoriety. Consider Vega’s starring role alongside Jodie Foster in the 1997 movie Contact (based on a novel of the same name by Carl Sagan).  In it, Foster’s character searches for signs of life in the universe and receives a signal from Vega, even attempting to travel there in a space transport pod. We’ll all have to revisit the movie to find out if she makes it and if she found any extraterrestrial life.

In the meantime, take time to wonder at this star that, like a good friend, is always here for us, being visible year-round.  It is part of the constellation Lyra and associated with Deneb and Altair, which together form the asterism known as the Summer Triangle due its prevalence directly overhead in the mid-summer night sky. Vega can usually be observed from most places on the planet (except some far-north locations like Alaska and northern Canada).  It never sets and can be viewed on almost any night of the year.

Last week, it was in the northwest sky in the early evening. Look for its bright blue-white light, and respect its luminescent force since it is the second-brightest star seen in the Northern hemisphere and the fifth brightest start seen from our planet. Though only twice as big as our sun, it shines with 40 times the luminosity.

Perhaps because of its radiance, it has been known and observed by many cultures throughout history. The word Vega comes from an Arabic word Waga or Waqu or Waka, which means falling or swooping. This star and its constellation were observed as a large bird, either an eagle or vulture, thus a swooping vulture or falling eagle by Ancient Egyptian and Indian cultures.

Besides its intensity and cultural role, Vega has even more unique features and claims to fame. If a picture is worth a thousand words, what would Harvard scientists at their College Observatory have said after they photographed Vega? This feat, undertaken in 1850, gave Vega the title of first star to be photographed (other than the sun).

And interestingly, Vega also was at one time the North Star. Many thousand years ago, Vega appeared as the North Star, and it will be again in approximately 12,000 years, or in the year 13,727. Due to the Earth’s axis wobble, the perception of north shifts to different stars over a 26,000-year cycle; this cyclic wobbling is called the precession of the equinoxes.

My final fascination with Vega revolves around its rapid revolutions. Like a whirling dervish, Vega likes to spin fast, so fast that it almost destroys itself in the process. Vega rotates every 12.5 hours at about 90 per cent of its critical rotation speed, which is the velocity at which an object would tear itself apart. Being just below that speed allows it to maintain its structural integrity, if only barely. Because of this spinning, its equator bulges outward due to centrifugal effects, giving it an elliptical shape. And this spinning also makes for temperature differentials between its mid-section and its poles of up to several thousand degrees.

It has been said that Vega is “arguably the next most important star in the sky after the sun.” You can see why, and how its celebrity has taken hold in the heavens and on earth.

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.