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The Buzz in the Night Sky

How many stars can you find in the Beehive Cluster?

Thursday the crescent moon appears high in the south at sunset, forming a line with the Gemini twins Pollux and Castor above. The three are still aligned Friday, but this time the moon is much farther below the two planets — closer actually to Cancer, the dimmest of the zodiac’s 13 constellations.
    The crab appears as an upside-down Y, its extended pinchers the letter’s arms. Friday’s moon is 10 degrees to the east of the point where the claws meet the body. Marked by a fuzzy blob of light, this is the Beehive Star Cluster. Also called Praesepe, meaning little cloud, and Messier 44 (M44), it is one of the closest star clusters.
    The ancient Greek astronomer Ptolemy described it as a “nebulous mass in the breast of Cancer.” The Beehive Cluster was one of the first objects Galileo trained his telescope on in 1609. He was able to identify 40 distinct stars; Today, scientists have found well over a thousand. Armed with a small telescope of even binoculars, you’ll have more optic power than that great Renaissance thinker. See how many stars you can spot.
    Venus still dominates the western sky in the hour after dusk, but the evening star is sinking fast day by day, until June 5 when it crosses in front of the sun, thereafter disappearing within daylight. This transit of Venus, when the planet appears as a small black dot slowly moving across the sun’s face, is quite rare.
    Only the two inner planets can transit the sun — or cross between it and earth. Mercury does so less than every 10 years, but for Venus it will be another 105 years before the next transit. Plan ahead, as you’ll need eye protection to watch this phenomenon. You can order disposable eclipse glasses from Amazon for less than $1 each. Otherwise, or if cloud cover interferes, you can watch the transit via a web feed. Go to transitofvenus.org for more information.