Look in western skies for stick man Perseus, a celestial hero

  • Thursday, February 13, 2014 10:27am
  • Life

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 fairly distinct and has a great story.

Between 7 and 8 p.m. gaze toward the high western skies, a little below the overhead zenith. Between the bright constellation Cassiopeia (the giant sideways W) and the Pleiades, the bright star cluster that resembles a tiny little dipper, you’ll find the constellation Perseus.

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 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 more than 7,000 light-years away. In miles that’s over 40,600 trillion miles.

According to Greek and Roman mythology, Perseus was one of the many love children of Zeus, the king of the gods of Mount Olympus.

Perseus was half god-half mortal. He was said to be one of Zeus’ favorite offspring.

Zeus turned to Perseus to slay Medusa, the snake-headed monster that was terrorizing the countryside.

Zeus 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 and using the shield and the razor sword he was able to lop off her head.

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.

In the constellation we see in the high western sky Perseus is towing the head of Medusa.

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, 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 blinking at you … a reminder of the menacing Medusa.

Celestial hugging this week: The waning gibbous moon passes by the planet Mars and Saturn this week. Best seen in the low south to southwest sky in the early morning twilight sky.

Mike Lynch is a broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and the author of “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations.” Email him at mikewlynch@comcast.net.

The Everett Astronomical Society website is: www.everettastro.org/.

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