Hercules, A summer constellation, and a big time star cluster
Hercules the Hero is not the brightest of constellations, but it’s a large one. In fact, it’s the fifth-largest constellation in the sky and home to some wonderful celestial treasures. Hercules actually looks like the first letter in its name, the only constellation that has this bragging right. Picture in your mind a giant fancy hand written “H.” See if you can spot the “H” high in the Marshall southern sky. The best thing to do is go out about 10 p.m., face due south, and crank your head all the way up to the overhead zenith. I suggest lying back on a reclining lawn chair to save your back and neck muscles. That “H” will be just below the zenith in the very high southern sky. Granted, this will not be an easy task, especially if you’re dealing with any level 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!
The Roman mythology legend explains why Hercules is hanging by his toes. It’s certainly twisted and complex, but here’s the gist of it. Hercules was the son of Zeus, the king of the gods, and Alcmene, one of the many mortal women who Zeus was seeing on the side. Zeus and monogamy definitely didn’t get along. Hera, Zeus’s wife and the queen of the gods, found out about many of her hubby’s sordid affairs and was understandably upset by this birth. 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, moved to the suburbs, and had a whole bunch of kids. He was a super family man with a big smile on his face. Even after all those years Hera hung on to this big grudge and wanted him dead. But since Hercules was half god he was immortal, and Hera couldn’t kill him. Her back-up plan, though, was 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. Yuck! When he snapped out of the spell he was so full of unimaginable remorse and guilt that he threw himself on 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. Instead of tossing him into prison to rot away for the rest of his life, he gave Hercules a series of 12 hard labors to atone for his crime. One of the labors was to slay a mighty lion with a bad attitude that was terrorizing the land and making meals out of the local populace. This lion’s hide was so tough that no sword could pierce it. Hercules had to use all of his strength to wrestle the lion to the ground, take the lion’s claw, and slash the beast’s throat with it.
Hercules was also assigned the task of killing a diabolical magic 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, and completed several other beyond challenging labors. King Eurystheus figured Hercules would take a lifetime to accomplish all of the labors assigned to him, but Hercules got it all done within a couple of years. The king was elated and officially forgave him, and in fact honored him! Hercules lived the rest of his life in peace and even remarried and started another family. He also performed numerous acts of heroism to show good faith to society for his sincere repentance. The other gods and goddesses were impressed by Hercules’ bravery but still had a lot of misgivings about his heinous crime. They all agreed to depict his figure in the stars, but have him hanging upside down.
Within the constellation Hercules is one of the coolest things you can 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 it will knock off your visual socks, even with a smaller telescope. M13 is on the upper right-hand side of the Hercules keystone. The Hercules Cluster may have as many as a million stars crammed into an area about 870 trillion miles across, and this colossal cluster is over 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!
Comet NEOWISE may be visible this week: Comet NEOWISE passed by the sun on July 3 and is on its long journey out of the solar system. This week the comet will be within 78 million miles of the Earth and may be visible to the naked eye in the early morning and well as the early evening. In the evening look for NEOWISE around 10 pm in the low northwestern sky, about 15 to 20 degrees above the horizon. Make a fist and hold it out at arm’s length. The comet will be somewhere between one and two “fist-widths” above the northwest horizon. In the early morning look between 4 to 4:30 a.m. in the low northeast sky about 10 degrees or about one “fist-width” at arm’s length above the horizon. If you look much later than 4:30, the morning twilight will become so bright it’ll drown the comet out.
As it is with many comets though, there’s never a guarantee as to how bright they’ll be. You may need binoculars or a small telescope to see it. It’ll resemble a faint “fuzzy star” with a tail pointing to the upper right. Comet NEOWISE is named after NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer program that discovered the comet earlier this year.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is also the author of “Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations,” published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net.