Mars and the Beehive

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Mars and the Beehive

Mars and Venus will pass near a star cluster with many aliases this month. It’s probably best known as the Beehive. But it’s also known as Praesepe — Latin for “crib” or “manger” — as well as Messier 44 and NGC 2632. Astronomers have many other names for it, most of which are long catalog numbers.

The cluster is in Cancer, the crab. From a distance of at least 600 light-years, it looks like a hazy smudge of light. Binoculars reveal there’s more to it — a swarm of stars that looks like bees buzzing around their hive.

Astronomers have identified about a thousand members of the cluster. A few are bigger and brighter than the Sun, and congregate in the cluster’s middle.

But most of the bees are much fainter and smaller than the Sun. They spread up to a few dozen light-years from the core. Those stars won’t hang around forever, though. They’re being tugged by the gravity of the galaxy’s other stars and gas clouds. Eventually, they’ll be stripped away and head off on their own.

Mars will pass directly across the cluster over the next couple of nights. They’re a third of the way up the western sky at nightfall, to the upper left of Venus, the “evening star.” Mars looks like a fairly bright orange star.

Mars will move away from the cluster after tomorrow night, with Venus closing in on it night by night. Venus will be closest on the 12th — an encounter with a star cluster with lots of aliases.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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