A hero is hanging in there!
In the early evening skies of February, it’s possible to see a sideways stick man, with your imagination turned up a bit! It’s the constellation Perseus the Hero. Perseus is not in the upper echelon of constellations, but it’s distinct and has a great story.
Perseus is a little below the overhead zenith in the high western Butler heavens. Our hero is between the bright constellation Cassiopeia the Queen, which looks like a bright sideways “W,” and the Pleiades, a bright star cluster resembling a tiny Little Dipper. You may want to save your neck and back and recline on a lawn chair to check out Perseus, or at least lean back against the side of your car or whatever. It’s up there!
Perseus’s head is near Cassiopeia, and his feet are just to the right of the Pleiades. One of his arms hangs below his body and is relatively bright and straight, but his other arm pointing toward the zenith is much fainter.
Astronomically, Perseus is a treasure chest of wonderful little star clusters and other great stuff because it lies in the plane of our disk-shaped Milky Way Galaxy. The Perseus Double Cluster is a must-see, easily seen with the naked eye in moderately dark skies. It looks like a pale white patch between the triangular head of Perseus and the constellation Cassiopeia.
With even a small telescope or a pair of binoculars, you can easily catch the stunning beauty of the Double Cluster, made up of relatively young stars over 7,000 light-years away. That converts to over 40,600 trillion miles!
Through my large telescopes, the Perseus Double Cluster is always a hit with folks at my stargazing parties.
According to Greek and Roman mythology, Perseus was one of the many “love children” of Zeus, the king of the gods of Mount Olympus. Zeus got around! Because of his father, Perseus was half god-half mortal and was said to be one of Zeus’s favorite offspring.
As the story goes, reports came into Mount Olympus about this awful monster, Medusa, who was stoning the countryside. Medusa was a gorgon, who instead of hair had hundreds of long snakes protruding from her head. Isn't that lovely?
Medusa was so menacing that when she roamed the countryside, she turned everyone who even glanced at her into stone statues. Something had to be done! Whole cities were turning into statue gardens.
Zeus turned to Perseus to slay Medusa and put her stoning business out of business. He equipped his son with a pair of winged shoes from Hermes, the messenger of the gods. He also armed Perseus with a very sharp sword and a magic shield borrowed from Athena, the goddess of wisdom.
With his winged shoes, Perseus flew off after Medusa. Using Athena’s magic shield, he could spot Medusa without getting himself turned to stone. Please don’t ask me how he did that. I’m not all that familiar with magic shields.
Anyway, using the shield and the razor sword, he lopped the head of Medusa right off. He then flew back to the Mount Olympus area with the severed snake head so it could be buried in a pit and covered with heavy boulders. Even the severed head of the gorgon could turn you into stone. Medusa was worse than nuclear waste!
The constellation Perseus appears to be flying high in the western sky, towing the head of Medusa, so be careful when you look at our hero. I don’t want you stoned! Right about where the head of Medusa is in the constellation is a star called Algol, also known as “the demon star.”
Algol is what’s known as an eclipsing binary star, a pair of stars that orbit each other in a three-day cycle. Because the stars rapidly circle each other and regularly eclipse each other, Algol dims significantly for about five hours every couple of days. The demon star is sinisterly blinking at you … a reminder of the menacing Medusa.
Celestial Happening this week: The bright planets Jupiter and Venus are the brightest starlike objects in the early evening western sky right now.
Venus is the brighter of the two, to the lower left of Jupiter. Through the rest of February, Jupiter and Venus will draw closer and closer to each other in the post twilight sky.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of "Stars: a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations," published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and adventurepublications.net. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org