Weekly astronomy column: We’ve heard of the cow that jumped over the moon. In tonight’s evening sky, there’s a celestial bull (Taurus) riding high, and the moon is about to plow right in front of him. Watch out, moon.
We’ve heard of the cow that jumped over the moon. In tonight’s evening sky, there’s a celestial bull riding high, and the moon is about to plow right in front of him. Watch out, moon.
The stars of the constellation Taurus the Bull may resemble a bull only if you have a good imagination. The late author and cartoonist H.A. Rey (famous for his children’s series "Curious George") did a masterful treatment of constellations in his book, "The Stars: A New Way to See Them." He was able to reconfigure most of the constellations to pretty well resemble their namesake, including this stellar bovine, Taurus.
In the early evenings of late winter, you can see Taurus high in the south, just above the bright constellation stars of Orion. On the second week of March, Taurus is just past due south at 7 p.m. and beginning its ride down to the western horizon. At 11 p.m., look low in the west.
Aldebaran is most noted for its brilliant red-orange star Aldebaran, and two large and bright open star clusters, the Pleiades and the Hyades. Aldebaran is 65 light years from the sun and shines at magnitude +0.8. It is a massive star, over 44 times the width of the sun.
The U.S. Navy had a ship named for Aldebaran (an AF-10).
To H.A. Rey, Aldebaran marks the flaming eye of this bull. The star appears at the lower end of the “V” shaped Hyades star cluster. Aldebaran is actually much closer to us than the star cluster, so this is a chance alignment. The Hyades is imagined as the back of the bull’s head. To the left (east) is a +2nd magnitude star, right over the top of Orion. This star marks the tip of his nose in Rey’s book, though some see it as the tip of a horn. Rey’s depiction borrows a star right above it, which is actually part of the neighboring constellation Louie the Cab Driver (my nickname for Auriga the Chariot Driver). This star of Auriga becomes the tip of the left (east) horn of Taurus the Bull, as if the bull is knocking Auriga out of the way (Poor Louie!).
To the upper right (west) of the Hyades is the Pleiades star cluster, the other horn tip, said Rey.
Rather dim stars to the lower right of the Hyades are also part of Taurus and are outlined as the bull’s body.
Be sure to see the Pleiades. They are a gorgeous sight, with six easily seen stars packed close together like a compact dipper. They are amazing in binoculars but eyes alone are enough to appreciate the Pleiades.
Very close to the “nose” star just above Orion, is the Crab Nebula. Easily viewed with a small telescope on a dark night where light pollution is not bad, it appears a small, dim puffy cloud, shaped like a baby’s bootie. This is the remnant of a star that blew up as a supernova. The blast was seen the world over on July 4, 1054, when for a while it was the brightest star in the night sky. It is about 6,500 light years distant.
How about that moon? On the evening of March 11, the moon passes close (by two degrees) to the Pleiades, and on the 12th, when it is first-quarter phase, it stands near Aldebaran. Binoculars will help you see the star clusters through the lunar glare. Let us hope the moonlight doesn’t bother the bull, or a couple more craters may be due!
Note: References to “left” and “right” assume you are looking from the Northern Hemisphere. Below the equator, the sky appears upside down from our perspective!
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Keep looking up!