One of my favorite constellations of the summer is Hercules the Hero. First of all, while it's not the brightest of constellations, it's a large one, the fifth largest constellation in the sky. Secondly, I also love the Greek mythological story behind our stellar hero, and lastly, I love all of the wonderful celestial treasures within it. A word of advice here...I would hold off checking out the constellation Hercules until a little later this coming week, say Thursday or Friday. The next several nights, that very bright full moon is going to make it tough on you. By late in the week, it won't rise until later in the evening, and it won't be quite as full and bright.
The best way to describe what Hercules looks like is to picture in your mind a giant fancy hand written "H" in the sky. Obviously, that seems appropriate. See if you can spot that fancy "H" high in the Marshall sky. The best way is to go out about 10 p.m. this week, face due south and crank your head all the way up to the overhead zenith. That "H" will be just below the zenith. Granted, this will not be an easy task, especially if you're dealing with any kind of urban or suburban lighting, but give it a shot. Even if you don't see the entire "H" I know you should be able to spot a trapezoid made up of four moderately-bright stars. This is known as the keystone. It's the area where the two sides of the "H" join together. This "H" is supposed to outline the figure of Hercules, hanging upside down. Good luck with that one!
Anyway, the legend of Hercules is twisted and complex, but I'll try my best to boil it down for you. Hercules was the son of Zeus, the king of the gods, and Alcmene, one of the many mortal woman who Zeus was seeing on the side. Hera, Zeus's wife and queen of the gods, was understandably upset by this birth and upsetting Hera was something you never wanted to do! She lived for revenge.
Hercules grew up, a giant of a man, settled down, got married and had a lot of kids. He was a super family man who also had a big smile on his face. Even after all these years, Hera was still very upset that Hercules even existed and wanted to do him in, but since Hercules was half god, he was immortal. Hera couldn't kill Hercules, but she was determined to make his life miserable. What she did was beyond hideous. She put a spell on him that forced him to murder his wife and all of his kids. When he snapped out of the spell, he was so full of unimaginable remorse and guilt that he threw himself at the mercy of King Eurystheus.
The good king saw that Hercules was truly, truly sorry for what he had done. Nonetheless, he had to punish Hercules. He gave Hercules a series of many hard labors to atone for his crime. He had to kill a mighty lion, probably beefed up on steroids, that was terrorizing the land and eating man, woman and child. This lion's hide was so tough that no sword to could pierce it. Hercules had to wrestle it to the ground and with all his strength took the lion's claw and slashed the beast's throat with it.
Hercules was also assigned the task of killing a magical diabolical multi-headed snake, which was no easy task because every time he cut off a head it just grew back. He also captured a giant stag, took on wild monster birds, a herd of filthy oxen and a number of other beyond challenging labors. King Eurystheus was astonished with all that he accomplished and set Hercules free. The other gods and goddesses were so impressed by Hercules bravery that they depicted his figure in the stars but had him hanging upside down. In spite of his great works, they just couldn't forget his evil deed.
Within the constellation Hercules is one of the coolest things you'll see with your telescope, even if your telescope isn't all that big. It's the great Hercules Cluster, astronomically known as M13. It's what's known as a globular cluster, a spherical arrangement of thousands of old stars crammed in a relatively small space. I guarantee that'll knock off your visual socks. M13 is on the upper right hand side of the Hercules keystone. There are probably more than 100,000 stars crammed in an area about 870 trillion miles across, and this colossal cluster is more than 25,000 light years away. By the way, just one light year is nearly 6 trillion miles. When you first see it through your telescope, it may appear as a fuzzy patch of light but keep looking and keep focusing and you should see a few individual stars at the edge of the cluster.
Not far from the great Hercules Cluster is another wonderful globular cluster, M92, not quite as bright as M13 but still very, very nice!
Celestial hugging this week: The bright planets Venus and Mercury are shining closely together in morning twilight, just above the horizon in the low eastern sky
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/Paul and is author of the book, "Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations," published by Adventure Publications available at bookstores at www.adventurepublications.net.
Lynch's Facebook page is at: www.facebook.com/mike.lynch.12327.