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Finding the Buzz in Cancer

See if you can beat Galileo’s 40

As the sun sets this week, its latest of the year at 8:35, Saturn and Mars appear in the darkening skies, Mars high in the southwest and Saturn trailing 25 degrees at due south. Mars sets at midnight, with Saturn following 90 minutes later.
    Our neighbor isn’t called the red planet for nothing: its orange hue is quite distinct and a real contrast to golden Saturn, although both shine at around first magnitude and are as bright as any star.
    See if you can tell the difference between Saturn’s steady glow and Spica’s blue-white twinkling just a few degrees below. Thursday night the waxing gibbous moon joins the picture, just to the southeast of the two.
    Mercury reaches its farthest point from the sun Saturday. When the sun sets in the northwest, it is 26 degrees below to the west-northwest. Even so, Mercury hugs the horizon and sets within an hour of the sun. But once spotted, the innermost planet is surprisingly bright at 0 magnitude. The only brighter star visible, and not by much, is Arcturus, directly overhead.
    Saturday, Mercury joins another test of the eyes, the Beehive Cluster nestled at the center of Cancer, just a couple degrees higher. The crab is a faint constellation, it’s lead star Altarf less than third magnitude. Collectively, the stars of the Beehive Cluster are brighter, appearing as a fuzzy spot at the point where the crab’s pinchers meet its body. Observed with binoculars or a telescope, the cluster comes alive with individual lights, although none are brighter than sixth magnitude. When Galileo trained his telescope of the Beehive Cluster in 1609, he recorded “a mass of more than 40 small stars.” Armed with binoculars, you should be able to see at least that many of the hundreds of buzzing bees.
    Venus and Jupiter rise an hour before dawn and are within a half-dozen degrees of one another, Venus being the brighter and the higher of the two.