Summer is racing to a close. Kids are headed back to school, and even though summer doesn’t officially end until Sept. 22 it’s not the same once we get past Labor Day.
There’s still plenty of summer in the evening sky, as far as the constellations go. One of my favorites is Hercules the Hero. It’s not one of brightest constellations but I love the celestial hero’s classic story. Hercules supposedly outlines the figure of a mighty hero in Greek mythology, but to me looks more like a giant fancy handwritten capital “H” hanging diagonally in the high southwestern sky.
As soon as it’s dark enough, after 8:30 p.m., starting look for a very bright star nearly overhead. That’s Vega in the constellation Lyra the Lyre. About 15 to 20 degrees to the lower right of Vega in the high southwestern sky, (or about two of your fist-widths at arm’s length) look for four moderately bright stars that form a trapezoid. You should be able to see it unless there’s really a lot of light pollution from where you’re observing. That trapezoid is in the center of the Hercules constellation, right about where you’d join to two sides of the “H”.
The most significant part of Hercules is on the upper right hand side of the trapezoid. That’s where you’ll find the Hercules cluster, one of the great celestial treasures of the sky any time of the year. It’s a must-see object with any size telescope. You can even see it with the naked eye if you’re stargazing in the dark countryside. Look for a faint smudge, but with a good pair of binoculars or even better, a telescope, you’ll see a really gorgeous spherical cluster of very old stars, known as a globular cluster.
Astronomers figure it’s about 25,000 light-years away, which equals about 145,000 trillion miles. There may be up to a million stars crammed in area a little over 800 trillion miles wide. Through even a moderate telescope you can see some individual stars at the edge. As it is with all telescopic objects, though, look at the cluster for extended periods of time through the eyepiece of your scope to let your eyes get use to the darkness of the field.
Mike Lynch, amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis, is author of “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations” published by Adventure Publications available at bookstores at http://www.adventurepublications.net