Early bird skywatchers can use binoculars to see Venus make a close approach to the beautiful Beehive star cluster, also known as M44. The cosmic pair will only be separated by 1.5 degrees - equal to only 3 full moon disks apart. Face the eastern horizon at dawn – about 30 minutes before local sunrise. Look for a super-bright white star about a quarter the way up the sky. That is Venus, the second planet from the Sun. it appears so bright because it is entirely covered with highly reflective white clouds and is located about 80 million km away from Earth.
Meanwhile, using binoculars centred on Venus, you will notice just to its upper left a fuzzy patch of stars huddled together. The Beehive cluster is located in the zodiacal constellation Cancer and is one that astronomers of old were quite familiar with. Ptolemy in the first century AD made note of it, and Galileo 400 years ago this year studied it for the first time through a telescope. Since then it has become a favourite target for backyars stargazers everywhere. Best views are had in late winter/early spring when it is conveniently placed in the evening sky.
The cluster spans about 22 light years across and binoculars will show off about 40 of the brightest members which lie about 600 light years away from us. According to a 2007 census of the cluster, there are 1010 confirmed member stars, of which 30% are probably similar to our own Sun. I wonder if any of them have planets revolving around them?
Tags: Beehive, M44, Venus
Posted in Planets, Solar System, Stargazing, stars | 7 Comments »