Looking Up: See the Beehive star cluster
Early spring evenings offer truly beautiful groups of stars at their highest in the southern sky. These include the Beehive Star Cluster and the “head” stars of Hydra the Water Serpent, the longest constellation in the sky.
Last Quarter Moon arrives April 8th and New moon on April 15, providing moonless evening skies for the first half of April. As much as we love seeing the Moon, it brightly reflects the Sun making seeing the fainter stars a challenge.
The Beehive, alas, is fairly dim but under dark, clear skies it is visible as a faint fuzzy patch to eyes alone. Cast a pair of binoculars on it and it resolves into a wonderful collection of stars. They may remind you of a swarm of bees. They don’t appear to be moving, however, and at a distance of 577 light years, there is no danger of being stung!
Also known as M44, as well as Praesepe, the Beehive Star Cluster is within the dim constellation Cancer the Crab. At about 8:30- 9 p.m. Daylight Savings Time in the first half of April, M44 is due south. From mid-northern latitudes, look a little more than half way up.
Don’t confuse the Beehive, however, with a much more easily seen group of stars, the “head” of Hydra. This group appears due south, right under the Beehive, separated by about 15 degrees.
(A clenched fist held at arm’s length towards the sky spans about 10 degrees. Extend your index and little fingers; they span about 15 degrees.)
The “head” stars are the beginning of the long castellation of the Water Serpent, which extends eastward (to the left as seen from the Northern Hemisphere). Stars are connected on star maps making a long, bending line 100 degrees long.
The brightest star in Hydra is a short way to the lower left of the “head” and is known as Alphard. Glowing at +2nd magnitude, it is similar in brightness to the brighter stars of the Big Dipper. Binoculars will show you the red color of Alphard.
Speaking of which… turn north and look up! In mid-evening in April, the Big Dipper is almost at its highest, completing what I call its “Spring Leap” over (around) the North Star.
Which looking at the Beehive Star Cluster, you will see several bright stars nearby. Over to the left (east) is the star Regulus and other stars of Leo the Lion. To the right is the bright star Procyon, and a bit further up is the two bright stars paired near each other, Pollux and Castor (higher up).
PLANETS THIS WEEK: It’s well worth a look at the starry sky before dawn- at any time- but this month, the planets are Saturn and Mars are prominent and close together. On April 7- 8, the Moon will be seen very near these planets in the south-southeastern sky, as seen an hour before sunup. Mars is the redder of the two planets (the one on the left). Mars will become much brighter by summer (more later)!
Planet Jupiter, much brighter, is seen far over in the south at this time.
In the evening sky, look for brilliant planet Venus low in the west during twilight.
Keep looking Up!
— Peter Becker is Managing Editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, PA. Notes are welcome at email@example.com. Please mention in what newspaper or web site you read this column.