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Volume 14, Issue 20 ~ May 18 - May 24, 2006

Sky Watch

by J. Alex Knoll

Hercules’ Labors

Sunset is around 8:15 this week, and as the sky darkens Mars and Saturn appear high in the west with Mars about 15 degrees closer to the horizon. The red planet is joined by another red light, the star Pollux — the mortal twin brother to Castor. Saturn travels amid the dim stars of Cancer the crab. Mars sets in the northwest at midnight, followed by Saturn an hour later.

As the sun sets, Jupiter rises and remains visible until sunrise at 6am. Just a few degrees from Jupiter is the glimmering blue star Zubenelgenubi, the fulcrum of Libra’s scales. Zubenelgenubi is actually a binary star, two stars revolving around a common center of gravity. The pair appear as one to the naked eye, but they are actually separated by more than 400 billion miles. Roughly 77 light years from us, the pair is easily revealed by binoculars.

Venus rises due east around 5am, and although not visible for long before sunrise, there is no mistaking this morning star, which outshines everything but the sun and moon.

By midnight, one of summer’s great constellations shines overhead. Hercules was the son of Zeus but lived as a mortal, wearing a lion skin that made him invincible.

In a fit of madness induced by Hera, Zeus’ jealous wife, Hercules killed his children. As penance, the hero was give 12 labors: killing the Nemean lion; overcoming the many-headed hydra; capturing the savage boar Erymanthus; felling with a volley of arrows the Stymphalian birds, whose wings obscured the sun; capturing Artemis’ golden-antlered deer; cleaning the stables of the 3,000 Augean oxen; capturing the fire-breathing bull of Crete; taming the flesh-eating mare of Diomedes; killing the queen of the Amazons and taking her magnificent belt; stealing the cattle from the three-bodied Geryon; killing the dragon Ladon and retrieving the golden apples it guarded; and, finally, capturing Cerebrus, the hound guarding the gates of Hades.

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