Stargazers | The Celestial Beehive: A return on the land and heavens
As the flowers of springtime begin to bloom in our part of the world, it won't be long before every garden is abuzz with the great pollinators: bees. Not just on the land, but in the heavens as well. In fact, stargazers will easily be able to find the great celestial beehive if they've got some patience and a nice dark sky.
This week, not long after dark, go outdoors and cast your gaze high in the east. There you'll find the brilliant planet Jupiter outshining all else in the sky. Just north, you'll spot the constellation Leo, the lion. A triangular group of stars forms the lion's back end, and a backward question mark of stars outlines the head of the great beast.
High in the western sky you'll find two equally bright stars known as Castor and Pollux, the twin brothers of ancient Greek mythology who form part of the constellation Gemini.
Midway between these two star groupings — and nearly overhead on early spring evenings — is the extremely faint zodiacal constellation of Cancer, the crab. And within the Cancer constellation — between the Twin stars and Regulus — lies a hazy smudge of light known to astronomers as M44, or the Beehive.
Stargazers have recognized this elusive sight at least since the time of the Greek writer Aratos in 260 B.C. In 130 B.C., Hipparchus mentioned it in his star catalog as the "Little Cloud" or "Cloudy Star". In second century A.D. astronomer Claudius Ptolemy described it in his famous manual Almagest as "The Nebulous Mass in the Breast (of Cancer)."
Interestingly, ancient sky watchers used this sight to forecast the weather. The ancient philosophers Aratos and Pliny both wrote that when they could see the cluster's hazy light, the skies would be fair; when they couldn't, a storm was on its way.
Today we know their technique works fairly: Cirrus clouds, which often precede a storm, can easily blot this cluster from view while leaving the rest of the sky seemingly unaffected.
It wasn't until the 17th century, however, that astronomers aimed the newly invented telescope in its direction and discovered its true nature. Today, even binoculars show this smudge as a beautiful cluster of many dozens of stars. It seems to look like a collection of bees swarming around their hive, which obviously reflects its name.
We now know that the Beehive lies some 577 light-years (3,500 trillion miles) away, meaning that the light it emanates tonight started traveling toward us in 1439.
If you're under a clear dark sky far from city lights, you'll find that the Beehive is not that tough to find with the unaided eye. If you live in or near a city, however, it might be totally impossible without some optical help.
If you're like me, you'll be excited to go outside this week and check out the Beehive. It's a sure sign that springtime has, indeed, arrived on -- and above -- our side of planet Earth!
Visit Dennis Mammana at www.dennismammana.com.