Mars and the Beehive
Mars is stirring things up the next few nights. It passes across the heart of a star cluster known as the Beehive. The cluster is visible to the eye alone, but binoculars will enhance the view.
The cluster is around 575 light-years away, and it contains a couple of hundred stars. There's a good variety of sizes and temperatures, so the stars shine white, yellow, and orange.
The cluster is more than just a collection of individual stars, though -- it's a family. All the stars were born from the same cloud of gas and dust, which makes them siblings. Various measurements suggest that they were born close to 750 million years ago. That makes the stars of the Beehive about one-sixth the age of the Sun.
Another famous cluster is similar to the Beehive -- the Hyades, which forms the face of Taurus, the bull. The stars are about the same age as those of the Beehive, and they're moving through space in the same direction and at the same speed. The clusters have the same kinds of stars, too. So it's possible that the two clusters were born together but somehow got split apart, so they move through space independently.
The Beehive is about halfway up the western sky at nightfall. To the unaided eye, it looks like a fuzzy star. Binoculars reveal many of its individual stars. Mars looks like a fairly bright orange star near the bottom of the cluster tonight. Over the next couple of nights, though, it'll move directly across the Beehive.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2008
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