The Not-So-Mighty Hercules

Date: May 16-31
Time: 8:30 pm, one hour after sunset
Place: the eastern sky

Rising in the east, huge club held aloft, left arm extended, is Hercules, son of Zeus and warrior demigod of Greece.  Hercules’ adventures in mythology are legendary, and his constellation is one of the largest in the sky, but its stars are disproportionately faint.

Purists will note how the shape traced above is really an asterism (an unofficial grouping of stars) and merely a subset of the classical constellation. In fact, part of the original Hercules extends well below the horizon at this time. The shape traced out here for his torso is only his head in the much larger classical pattern of stars.

So why ignore the rest of the constellation? The stars used to form this asterism are already too faint to be seen under most conditions. Those not shown are fainter still. The whole point of forming asterisms is to help you navigate the night sky, so if you can see it, go ahead and name it for whatever shape you think it resembles.

In the case of Hercules, at least the asterism still looks like what the original was named for — a warrior. Then again, lacrosse, jai alai, and baseball fans, not to mention florists, may have completely different interpretations.

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