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Venus and the Beehive
The 50 states have all kinds of symbols. South Carolina has an official heritage horse, for example — the marsh tacky. Kansas has a flying fossil, the pteranadon. And Vermont has a fly-fishing fly, the Governor Aiken bucktail streamer. But only Utah has an official star cluster: the Beehive Cluster, for the beehive state.
And for the next few evenings, a bright marker points to the beehive: Venus, the “evening star.” It’s low in the west as night falls. The Beehive Cluster is close to the upper left of Venus tonight, and even closer to the planet tomorrow night. Binoculars reveal a swarm of stars, so it’s a beautiful sight.
The cluster is one of the closest to Earth, at a distance of about 600 light-years. It contains more than a thousand stars. They’re packed into a region that’s about three dozen light-years across. The brighter, heavier stars congregate at the center of the cluster, with the lighter, fainter stars on the outskirts.
The stars of the Beehive were all born together, from the same cloud of gas and dust, about 600 million years ago. That means the cluster has made about three turns around the Milky Way. As clusters move through the galaxy, they usually fall apart quickly. Stars are stripped away by the gravity of the Milky Way’s other stars, gas, and dust. The fact that the Beehive has survived this long could mean that it’ll be around for much, much longer — billions of years into the future.