The Beehive Cluster in the Constellation Cancer.
Image credit: NOAO/AURA/NSF
At magnitude 3.7, the Beehive Cluster is a great target for observers with a telescope, binoculars, or no optical aid at all.
The Beehive is also known as M44 or Praesepe, which is Latin for “manger.” As one of the largest, closest, and brightest open star clusters, it can be spotted easily with the unaided eye. The Beehive lies near the center of the constellation Cancer the Crab.
This weekend, about three hours after sunset, if you look southeast about halfway between the horizon and the zenith, you will find the constellation Cancer. It is located between Leo the Lion and its notable backward question-mark shape rising in the east and Gemini the Twins to the west. This month, the most prominent feature in Cancer is the planet Mars. If you can spot the bright, reddish point of light, you know you’ve found the constellation Cancer.
Just about six degrees to the lower left of Mars is the Beehive Cluster. If you hold up three fingers at arm’s length, Mars will lie on one side and the cluster will appear on the other side of your three fingers. (Three fingers equals about five degrees of sky.)
Without optical aid, the star cluster will appear as a misty patch of light. Binoculars will help you zero in on a handful of stars. If you use a telescope, use a low-power eyepiece because the large size of the cluster (twice that of the full moon) will spill out of your field of view.
Scientists have found that the Beehive Cluster contains at least 200 stars. The cluster is about 730 million years old and lies approximately 577 light-years away from us. The Beehive’s age and direction of proper motion through space are similar to another nearby star cluster, the Hyades. The Hyades is a V-shaped cluster in the constellation Taurus, found on the other side of Gemini (to the upper right of Orion). These two clusters probably had a common origin in a nebula that existed 800 million years ago.
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Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She is currently the Feature Writer for Astronomy and Space at Suite101.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com