Starwatch: This stargazing tale might rock your world
Look up in the high western sky early in the evening and with a moderate amount of imagination and fantasy you can see a sideways stick man.
It's the constellation Perseus the Hero! Perseus is not in what many would consider the upper echelon of constellations, but it is fairly distinct and has a great story.
Around 7 p.m. to 8 p.m., gaze toward the high western skies, a little below the overhead zenith. Between the bright constellation Cassiopeia (the constellation that looks like a giant sideways "W") and the Pleiades (the bright star cluster that resembles a tiny little dipper), you'll find the constellation Perseus. You may want to recline on a lawn chair to check out Perseus, or at least lean back against the side of your car or whatever. It will make stargazing a little easier on your neck, especially if you're like me and on the early fringes of middle age.
The sideways stickman has his head just to the left near Cassiopeia and his feet to the right of the Pleiades. The arm that hangs below the sideways stickman hero is fairly bright and straight, but his other arm pointing toward the zenith is much fainter and has a distinct fishhook appearance to it. That's our hero Perseus.
Astronomically, Perseus is a treasure chest of nice little star clusters and other great stuff, because it lies in the plane of our disk-shaped Milky Way Galaxy. A must-see is the Perseus Double Cluster, easily seen with the naked eye in moderately dark skies. It looks like a pale white patch between the triangular head of our hero and the constellation Cassiopeia. With even a small telescope or a good pair of binoculars you can easily catch the stunning beauty of the double cluster of relatively young stars over 7,000 light years away. That's more than 40,600 trillion miles! The Perseus Double Cluster is always a hit with folks at my Minnesota and Wisconsin Starwatch 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. What can I say — Zeus got around! Anyway, because of his father, Perseus was half god, half mortal. He was said to be one of Zeus's favorite offspring.
As the story goes, reports came into Mount Olympus about this awful monster, Medusa, that was literally stoning the countryside. Medusa was a very ugly (or, should I say, beauty-challenged) gorgon monster, who was so ugly that instead of long flowing hair she had hundreds of long snakes hanging from her head. Lovely!
Medusa was so menacing and so ugly that when she roamed the countryside she turned everyone that even glanced at her into stone statues. Something had to done! Whole cities were turning into statue gardens and you know what birds do to statues! 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 he borrowed from Athena, the goddess of wisdom.
With his winged shoes, Perseus flew off after Medusa. Using the magic shield, he was somehow able to spot Medusa without getting himself turned to stone. 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 was able to lop off the head of Medusa.
He then flew back to Mount Olympus area with the severed snake head of Medusa 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!
In the constellation we see in the high western sky, Perseus is towing the head of Medusa, so be careful when you look at our hero. I don't want you stoned!
In fact, right about where the head of Medusa is in the constellation is a star called Algol, also known as "the demon star." Astronomically, Algol is what's known as an eclipsing binary star. It's actually a pair of stars that orbit each other in a three-day cycle.
Because of the stars rapidly circling each other and regularly eclipsing each other, it looks like the demon star is sinisterly blinking at you … a reminder of the menacing Medusa.
The waning gibbous moon passes by Mars and Saturn this week. Best seen in the low south to southwest sky in the early morning twilight sky. See the diagram.
If you have any astronomical questions or want me to write about something you're seeing in the night sky, drop me a line at email@example.com .