Sky Watch: The Celestial Strongman
No matter how long I study the sky, there will always be star groupings I just can't "see." Certainly the ancients didn't make it easy for us; they never devised the constellations to look like animals, objects and people, but rather just to represent them in the sky.
That's why I'm indebted to author H.A. Rey who, in 1952, created an entirely new set of constellation figures for those of us who are pattern-challenged.
Somehow -- and I have no idea how -- Rey found within each constellation stars bright enough to see in urban and suburban areas and connected them to form figures that actually resembled their constellations' namesakes.
For the past six decades, many stargazers have learned the constellations in this unique way and today, whether they know it or not, most amateur astronomers see the heavens through the eye of this creative genius. His classic book "The Stars: A New Way to See Them" should be required reading for every stargazer on the planet.
While Rey's figures are easy to recognize in the book, that doesn't mean they're easy to spot in the sky. It still requires patience and practice to see them, and sometimes there are constellations that still don't click with us.
For example, one of the star groupings that's always given me trouble is Hercules. Hercules -- or Heracles, as the ancient Greeks knew him -- represents the immortal strong man who performed eight heroic deeds as well as the Twelve Labors of ancient Greek mythology.
Hercules is the fifth-largest constellation in the heavens, but since it doesn't contain any brilliant stars, it's not particularly prominent. Thankfully this region of the sky does have four stars on its western end that trace a distorted square, or "keystone" and this is what I use to find it.
On May evenings, look for this keystone above the eastern horizon, just to the upper right of the bright star Vega which appears quite low in the northeast at dusk.
In Rey's depiction, the stellar keystone outlines the head of the strong man. The remaining stars in the constellation trace his body, but even imaginative stargazers may be challenged to find his appendages.
Within Hercules, sky watchers can find many interesting objects visible with a small telescope. Not only does it contain an abundance of double stars -- pairs of stars that often glow with strikingly different colors -- but it's also home to one of our galaxy's most stunning globular star clusters.
The cluster, known by the hopelessly poetic name M13, lies about one-third of the way between the northwestern-most and the southwestern-most stars and appears under a very dark sky as a faint, fuzzy patch of light.
This seemingly insignificant smudge is one of a hundred or so globular star clusters known throughout our Milky Way Galaxy. These contain hundreds of thousands of relatively old stars bound together by gravitation, the same force that holds us to the Earth.
If you've never been able to see Hercules -- or any other constellation, for that matter -- maybe now's the time to pick up a copy of Rey's wonderful book and view them in a whole new way!