Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Find the Beehive Cluster in the pre-dawn sky!

The constellations and celestial bodies visible before sunrise are truly spectacular at this time of year, and well worth rising early and heading directly outside to marvel at them, if at all possible.

The brilliant figure of Orion has been rising a bit earlier each morning (see this long-ago post which discusses this earlier-rising motion) and thus making his way just a bit further towards the west when viewed at the same time from one morning to the next. Because of this fact, he is now past the meridian line (or past "culmination") and further towards the west than the east by about 5:30 in the morning, but still close enough to the center of the sky to use him as your starting point for a tour of the dazzling "Winter Circle" of stars and constellations, which have been discussed previously in this post.

But now, viewers who can make it outside in the morning hours before sunrise have access to a special treat: the faint zodiac constellation of Cancer the Crab is almost directly overhead at around 5:30am or even 6:00am, affording an outstanding opportunity to locate the Crab's hidden jewel: the Beehive Cluster of stars. 

Not only does the Beehive play an extremely important role in many of the world's most famous Star Myths (including some very central episodes in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible), but it is an absolutely beautiful little cluster, just barely visible to the naked eye, and delightful and satisfying to locate and identify. The best opportunity to see the Beehive happens when Cancer is high in the sky, and having Cancer directly overhead at culmination or zenith is about as good of an opportunity as we get (of course, during early spring Cancer will be visible overhead during the hours before midnight, affording another opportunity to enjoy the Beehive, but then it will be "before bedtime" rather than "immediately upon waking up," for those on "conventional schedules" of waking and sleeping).

Below are a series of "night sky screenshots" from, to help you feel confident in finding the Beehive for yourself. You will be glad that you did! 

Note: It really is best to use binoculars to identify the Beehive: while you can just barely perceive it with the naked eye, it will be just at the limits of perception (unless you are blessed with an extremely clear and dark and crisp location for observing the stars, such as a desert location).

Also, note that the images below are for the northern hemisphere, and are "taken" from a perspective of about 35N latitude (although that doesn't matter too much, as the constellations shown will simply be higher or lower in the sky but still mostly visible from almost everywhere between the Arctic and Antarctic circles). Viewers in the southern hemisphere will see the same stars along the zodiac band, but of course there everything will be upside down, so simply turn your computer screen 180 degrees on its head in order to view these images.

We begin with a wide-angle view of the sky, looking towards the southern horizon (for viewers in the northern hemisphere), at about 5:30am on the morning:

None of the constellations are labeled here, but don't worry: we will dial in until we arrive at the beautiful Beehive Cluster. Note that the Milky Way can be seen cutting across the center of the sky. The Milky Way on this "end" is not as noticeable as it is when rising between Sagittarius and Scorpio, but you may still be able to see it depending on the darkness of your viewing location. You can see that Orion is located just "to the right" (that is, west) of the Milky Way band, and if you know where Gemini are located, you will see that the Milky Way flows right beneath their feet (they are above and to the left of Orion).

Orion's distinctive belt points down and "to the left" in the above image, enabling you to draw an imaginary line down and to the left from the belt to the extremely bright star Sirius, the so-called "Dog Star," located in Canis Major ("the Big Dog").

Below, I have drawn a yellow rectangle around the stars of Orion, and a blue rectangle around the stars of the constellation Canis Major, so that you can see where they are. In order to find the Beehive, you will probably want to begin with Orion as your first "stepping stone," since he is so easy to find:

Note that if you have downloaded onto your own computer, you can "follow along" on your screen in a bit higher resolution than my screenshots above (I intend to get some software to make better screenshots in the future, but these should be good enough to enable you to find the Beehive, so hang in there, we will get to it in just a moment).

Now, if you look at the upper left corner of the yellow box I've drawn around Orion, you will basically be pointing right to the Twins of Gemini, who are kind of like two stick-figures lying at an angle above and to the left (east) of Orion.

If you go to the upper right corner of the yellow box, you will be just up from the "V"-shaped stars of the Hyades, in the zodiac constellation of Taurus the Bull (the star Aldebaran is the forward lower-leftmost star of the Hyades, and it is labeled in the above screenshot).

Below, I have removed the rectangles around Orion and Canis Major, and added rectangles around the Twins of Gemini (blue) and the stars of Taurus the Bull (red), along with a smaller red square around the beautiful Pleiades, which are actually part of Taurus:

Can you still identify Orion? Good. When you go out to find the Beehive in the early morning, you will want to begin with Orion, identify Sirius and Canis Major if you want to, and then look upwards from Orion (in the northern hemisphere it is upwards) to find the "V" of the Hyades (and the silvery cluster of the Pleiades) on one side of Orion, and the long parallel sticks of Gemini on the other. Gemini will act as your next "stepping stone" to the Beehive in Cancer -- you're getting very close now!

Below is another screenshot of the same portion of the early-morning sky, this time with the front-end of Leo the Lion identified with another red rectangle. Note that this particular screen-shot cuts off the back-half of Leo at the left edge of the screen (he continues further left, and you will be able to see him in the actual sky). His leonine visage is clearly seen, arcing above yellow Jupiter (marked in the screenshot).

In the image below, we finally have an identifier for the region of the sky containing Cancer and the Beehive! It is marked with a green box. Unfortunately, you may not be able to see any stars in this region at first. That's because Cancer is so faint. However, Cancer can reliably be located directly between Gemini and Leo, which is why you need those "stepping stones." Basically, the mouth of the Lion points right towards the outstretched "arms" of the Crab:

In the screenshots below, we will begin to "zoom in" on the region of Cancer, so that you can see the Beehive on the screen. In the dark pre-dawn sky, you may be able to spot the Beehive as a faint silvery mist halfway between the stars of Gemini and the stars of Leo. You get an additional "help" from the benevolent planet Jupiter ("Jolly Jove") this year, since he is now traveling towards Leo, but Jupiter is not always there. Since he is, however, you can also use Jupiter as a "left-side handrail" to help you zero-in on the Beehive:

In the above image, we have zoomed-in quite a bit on Cancer. I have turned on the constellation outlines to help us identify everything. You can see Orion on the right, with the Milky Way flowing through. To the left of him as we look at the screen, you see the Twins of Gemini lying almost on their side, two parallel figures with Castor and Pollux as their heads. Down and to the left from the heads of the Twins is Jupiter (and to Jupiter's left, the stars of Leo) -- and directly below them you can also see the "Little Dog" (Canis Minor) consisting of just two stars, the lower of them being the very bright star Procyon, which is also marked in this screenshot.

Cancer is located between the Twins and Jupiter, or between Procyon and Jupiter. I like to think of Cancer the Crab as a trapezoidal body (the part to the right) with two "outstretched arms" (or claws) reaching to the left. However, in the above screenshot, the bottom line (or right-hand-side line) of the "trapezoid" is not drawn for us. I have drawn it in when discussing Cancer in previous posts, such as this one (that post also draws in the "muzzle" of the Lion, which is likewise not drawn-in on the above screenshots, even though it is helpful to envision it -- you can see the two stars that make up the muzzle, however, and draw in the connecting lines with your imagination, just as you will have to do in the morning sky outdoors).

In the screenshot above, you can actually make out the faint cluster of the Beehive, right in the heart of Cancer. Below is the same screenshot again, but this time I have drawn a green circle around the Beehive Cluster:

So, now you know where in the constellation Cancer to look for the Beehive, but since it is still a bit faint in these images, below are two more in which I've "zoomed" the screen even a little more. First, without the green circle:

Can you spot the Beehive now? It looks like a silver blur, between the outstretched arms of the Crab. Below I have reproduced the same screenshot, this time with a circle to identify the Beehive (green circle):

Frankly, unless you live in an exceptional area for viewing the stars, you probably will have a difficult time identifying the stars of Cancer itself (although you will be able to see the Beehive, especially if you have binoculars). Your best course of action is probably to use the much brighter constellations of Gemini and Leo (with the added help of Jupiter) and look about halfway between Gemini and Leo / Jupiter.

If you do that, you will probably exclaim "I think I see it!" Once you think you see it, pull up your binos and point them to the spot. You may need to find Jupiter with the binos, and then swing slowly towards Gemini until you identify the Beehive. With binoculars, it should be unmistakeable.

The Beehive is a bit of a challenge to find, but it is a rare treat, and well worth the effort. The cluster plays an outsized role in many ancient myths (and I have mentioned it in discussions in numerous interviews -- see the interview archive, here). You may also want to check out this earlier post about the Beehive, which contains a Sky & Telescope video with some discussion on finding the Beehive.

However, the "stepping stones" in the series of images above should help you locate the Beehive with confidence! I believe that if you keep a positive attitude and don't give up, and follow the instructions above to go from Orion to Gemini to Leo and then look halfway in-between, you should be able to perceive this beautiful treasure in the heavens -- which is also a treasure conveying ancient wisdom from the Old Ones, for our benefit and enlightenment today!