The Buzz in the Heavens
Follow the moon to these star clusters
The moon waxes through afternoon and evening skies this week, passing through the spring constellations of the zodiax and reaching first-quarter phase Monday.
Thursday the crescent moon appears high in the west as the sun sets at 7:35. The bright-orange glow of Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the bull, shines less than 10 degrees beneath the moon. Surrounding Aldebaran is a V-shaped group of stars, the Hyades cluster, which makes up the bull’s face. Six degrees above the moon, at the bull’s shoulder, another grouping of stars appears as a hazy blob, but it is actually the Pleiades cluster, a real sight when viewed with binoculars or a small telescope.
By Sunday the moon appears almost overhead when the sun sets at 7:38. It rests just a few degrees beneath the twin stars of Gemini, Castor and Pollux. The two take their names from the half-brothers of Greek myth. But cultures as deep-rooted and diverse as the Chinese and the Australian Aborigines have also seen these stars as twins. Monday the moon is to the south of the twins, forming a near-straight line.
Tuesday, the moon shines amid Cancer, a faint constellation of itself, but also host to the most easily visible of deep-space objects. Scientifically called M44, the Beehive Cluster is situated at the center of Cancer, and while you can see it with the unaided eye as a hazy blob, binoculars will reveal many of this hive’s bees.
Galileo first aimed his telescope at the Beehive Cluster in 1609, discovering that it “is not one star only, but a mass of more than 40 small stars.” Today, the Hubble Space Telescope, more than 100 million times more sensitive than Galileo’s own, has identified upward of 350 stars.
Although a compact blur from our vantage 580 light years away, the Beehive Cluster spans nearly 10 light years. It is about 400 million years old, young for stars, which is why these appear so distinctly blue.