A Buzz in the Sky
Saturn adds to the swarm of the Beehive Cluster
As the sun sets this week around 8:30, darkness reveals four of the five naked-eye planets. Fast on the heels of the sun and the closest to the horizon is Mercury, a surprisingly bright light about one fist-width above the northwest horizon. You’ll need a clear view, good timing and perseverance to spot this planet, but over the next two weeks it reaches its evening zenith at about 20 degrees above the horizon.
Sunset finds Mars perched directly above the western horizon, a dull reddish light little brighter than your average star but shining true with no flickers or twinkles. Over the next two weeks the red planet rises higher in the west each night, until on the 17th it pairs within a fraction of a degree of Saturn.
Saturn appears with sunset, high in the west amid the faint constellation Cancer the crab. Although one of the least distinct constellations, Cancer was worshiped by the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians as the Gate of Man, through which souls passed from heaven to earth to inhabit their bodily forms. The importance of this constellation carries to the modern age as well, as its brightest star, Praesepe, or the Manger, is believed to represent the birth of Christ.
The stars of Cancer may be faint, but near its center, and appearing less than one-half degree above Saturn this week, is M44 better known as the Beehive Cluster. To the unaided eye, M44 appears as a fuzzball, albeit brighter than the surrounding stars. Seen with binoculars, many of the 75 “bees” that make up this cluster 520 light years distant pop into view.
Jupiter shines high in the southeast at sunset and sets in the east-southeast around 4am, not two hours before daybreak.
As Jupiter sets at one edge of the sky, Venus rises at the opposite. By 6am the brilliant morning star fades against the light of dawn.