Catching the Beehive

Mar 3

Written by:
3/3/2013 9:41 PM  RssIcon

Some objects in the night sky are just easy to find - planets, for example, like Jupiter or Venus.  BAM!  There it is!  And even some deep sky objects aren't all that difficult - Messier 42, the Great Orion Nebula, is in an area with bright stars, and isn't much of a challenge to locate.  But some objects that are just fantastic are... well, out in the boonies.  It's like when you go to a wonderful park - sometimes you just have to drive a long way, through a whole-lot-of-nothing, just to get there.  And then when you do, you realize, "Wow, that was TOTALLY worth it!"

That's what it is like for the Beehive Cluster.  Also known as the Praesepe.  Also known as Messier 44.  Why so many names?  Well, from a dark sky area, you can see this cluster naked eye.  The stars can't be resolved, so it just sort of looks like a cloud up there, a little puff of celestial wonder nestled in an area with dimmer stars.  So it stands out more on it's own.  The word Praesepe stands for "manger" which is what our non-optically-aided ancestors termed it.  "Beehive" comes from a more modern view, because when this cluster is viewed with optical aid, it looks like a swarm of stars - or like a swarm of bees.  And Charles Messier added it to his list of "fuzzy objects in the sky that were not comets" - even though he undoubtedly knew it was not a "fuzzy nebula" of some sort.

Besides, it's that good.  I suppose it deserves at least three different names then.

So that means it's worth looking for, and finding.  But how?  It's in the middle of nowhere!

It's actually easier than you might think.  First, locate where Castor and Pollux are.  These are the two stars that make the "heads" of Gemini the Twins.  They aren't hard to find; look up from Procyon, which is above Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.  From there, look east. A WAYS east.  In fact, about 40 degrees east.  (Here's how to measure that distance in the sky.)  You want to find the first magnitude star Regulus.  It is almost the same brightness as Pollux, and brighter than Castor.  Now, notice how the twins have "feet" above where Orion is?  You want to look right in between the head and feet - right about where the word "Gemini" appears in the graphic below.  

Almost exactly halfway between that spot and the star Regulus is Messier 44.  Use some 7x35, 7x50 or 10x50 binoculars, and scan that area.  When you see a "swarm" of stars, STOP!  THAT is M44.  Look like a beehive?  Even from light polluted areas, there are a lot of stars to see here - easily a dozen or so of 7th magnitude or brighter.  And this week, that cluster is in an ideal location; at 9:00pm or so in the evening, it is near the meridian, the line running north, directly overhead, to south.  That places the cluster in an ideal location to find and observer.  You may want to rest on a chair or other spot, given how high overhead this is, so you don't hurt your neck.

But it is totally worth it.  Give it a try this week, if you have clear skies.  Don't worry, it will be around for a few more weeks.  

How to find and see Messier 44 in Cancer the Crab

This picture really doesn't do it justice, mostly because I'm not the greatest astrophotographer in the world.  The shot shows about 25 by 15 degrees worth of sky, with Asellis Borealis and Asellis Australis off to the left of the cluster, about 3 degrees away from each other.  This gives some indication of the cluster's overall angular diameter - over a full degree (closer to 1.5 in total).  So binoculars are really the best way to see this, unless you happen to have a rich-field telescope capable of providing a 2.5 to 3 degree field of view.

To the bottom of the picture is the much smaller open cluster M67, a faint smudge just above the "C" in Cluster.  By all accounts, M67 is not a half-bad cluster to view, so that should give some indication of just how awesome M44 actually is.  Get out there and try for at least the Beehive over the next couple of weeks.  It's well worth the effort to track it down.

For more information on what you can find and see in the night sky every week, see the homepage of Eyes on the Sky.  Light pollution reduction begins with you, and you can take simple steps to reduce night sky glow without compromising safety.  

While you're in the area, why not also take a look for Messier 67, which is just a binocular hop away?  

Photo of the Beehive Cluster in Cancer the Crab

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The Nightlight

This blog includes what to see in the night and daytime skies, thoughts on telescopes, binoculars, and other astronomy observing accessories and equipment, plus my own occasional notes on objects I've seen and observed. Oh, and the random theater or other "my take on life" post. In other words, there is always something interesting. Check it out.