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Ancient Greek mythology is full of heroes, but the greatest of them all was Perseus. Destined to become the great grandfather of the famous Hercules, Perseus had a rough start in life. King Acrisius of Argos was told by an oracle that he would be killed by his grandson, so he locked his only daughter, DanaŽ, in a dungeon, so that she could never bear him a grandchild that could fulfill the prophecy.
But the gods, as usual, had other plans, starting with Zeus ( Jupiter), who lusted after the beautiful Danae, and came to her disguised as a shower of golden coins that fell into her lap, and impregnated her. She gave birth to a son, and named him Perseus. When King Acrisius heard about this, he locked both mother and son inside a wooden chest and had it cast into the sea. But the gods did not allow the chest to sink, and guided it to the island of Seriphos, where a fisherman, Dictys, rescued them and brought up Perseus as his own son.
Perseus grew into a man of great strength and bravery, but his troubles were not over. Now it was King Polydectes of Seriphos that lusted after Danae. But Perseus guarded his mother so well, Polydectes finally ordered Perseus away, to slay the Gorgon Medusa, and bring back her head. The once very beautiful Medusa who had been cursed by the goddess Athene, for defiling her temple, and turned into a hideous old woman with snakes on her head in place of hair, and a face so evil that anyone who looked at it was instantly turned to stone. Polydectes was certain he was sending Perseus to his doom, after which he would be free to steal away his mother.
But once again, the gods favored Perseus. Athene gave him a bronze shield that shone like a mirror. Hephaestus gave him a diamond sword. Hermes gave him a gift of winged sandals, and Hades placed on his head a helmet of darkness that rendered him invisible. Perseus used the wings of Hermes to travel to the far shores where Medusa lived. Being invisible, he was able to sneak up on the creature, and looking only at her reflection in his shield so he wouldn't turn to stone, Perseus used the sword of Hephaestus to cut off the Gorgon's head.
From the blood of the slain Medusa sprang the winged horse, Pegasus, whom Perseus mounted to make his way back to Seriphos. As the two of them flew over the lands of Ethiopia, they stopped to rescue the princess Andromeda from Cetus, the sea monster, and Perseus carried her off to be his wife.
The three of them arrived back on the island of Seriphos to find the mother of Perseus in the clutches of King Polydectes. Perseus rescued her, and forced Polydectes and his followers to gaze upon Medusa's head, and they were all turned to stone. He then presented the head of Medusa to the goddess Athene, who set it in the middle of her shield. Finally, during an athletics contest, Perseus threw a discus that accidentally went astray, hitting and killing a spectator in the crowd. The spectator turned out to be the grandfather of Perseus, King Acrisius, thereby fulfilling the prophecy the King had tried so hard to avoid - that he would be killed by his grandson.
Naturally, being one of the gods' favored sons, Perseus was placed in the stars to live forever.
Sitting directly in the middle of a dense part of the Milky Way, Perseus is not the easiest figure to pick out. Aratus termed him "dust-stained". The brightest star in the constellation is Mirphak, which is Arabic for elbow, although it is also known as Algenib, Arabic for side. It is a giant star, 4,000 times brighter than our Sun, 570 light years away, with a magnitude of 1.79.
The beta star in Perseus is Algol, Arabic for the demon's head. It is commonly known as the "Demon Star", and throughout ancient and medieval times was considered the most dangerous and unfortunate star in the heavens. To the Hebrews it was "Rosh ha Satan", or Satan's Head. It is also associated with the mysterious, sinister Liluth, the legendary first wife of Adam.
The evil connotations of this star are due in no small part to the fact that it is one of the most famous variable stars in the sky. Every 2.86739 days, the star begins to dim, and over the course of five hours, it fades from a magnitude of 2.1, down to a magnitude of 3.4. Then it begins to brighten again, and five hours later it is back up to 2.1 again. It is easy to see how ancient cultures could have viewed this as the slow blink of a malevolent eye.
Modern times have revealed the star to be an eclipsing binary: a two star system where one star regularly crosses in front of the other, causing it to dim, and then brighten again.
Being in the center of the Milky Way, Perseus is overflowing with star clusters, the most well known is the Perseus Double Cluster, two charming clusters named NGC 884, and NGC 869. The two open clusters are right beside each other and can be seen in the same field of view, shown in the image below.
NGC 1333 is a huge cloud of gas and dust a thousand light years away where stars are being born, lit up by the blazing, fiery light of new born stars.
NGC 1275 is a giant, active, elliptical galaxy, 237 million light years away. It is an unusual galaxy in that long gaseous filaments extend out from the galaxy into space, created by the powerful magnetic field generated by a massive black hole at the center of the galaxy. NGC 1275 is near the middle of a large group of galaxies called the Perseus Galaxy Cluster.
There are four known planetary systems in the constellation Perseus. All the stars are beyond naked eye visibility, and all the planets are gas giants many times larger than Jupiter, and unlikely to harbor life. For more information on exoplanets, visit NASA's Planet Quest.