Venus and the Beehive

Venus and the Beehive

Venus is moving past a “beehive” of stars over the next few nights. The “evening star” will pass as close as about half a degree from the hive’s outskirts.

The beehive is the star cluster Messier 44, in Cancer, the crab. When viewed through a telescope, it looks like a swarm of angry bees.

So far, astronomers have identified about a thousand stellar bees in the hive. Two-thirds of them are red dwarfs — the smallest, coolest, and faintest class of stars. About a third are similar to the Sun. And a few are either giants or the “corpses” known as white dwarfs.

The giants are among the most massive stars in the cluster. Heavier stars burn through their nuclear fuel more quickly than lighter stars do. When it’s all gone, the star puffs up — it becomes a giant. The corpses began as even more-massive stars. They used up their fuel, became giants, then shed their outer layers, leaving only their hot but dead cores.

So the mass of a giant reveals how long it’s been around. And that can tell us the minimum age of a cluster — the cluster can’t be any younger than those stars. Using this and other techniques, most estimates put the age of the beehive at a little more than 600 million years.

The beehive stands to the upper left of Venus tonight, and a little closer to the planet over the next couple of nights. You need binoculars to see it, though — a hive of fairly young stars buzzing near the evening star.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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