For the next couple of months, the magnificent planet Jupiter visits the Beehive star cluster in Cancer. The former is obviously visible to the unaided eye under even the worst light pollution—and the cluster can be glimpsed naked-eye given a dark moonless night. In either case, both are a lovely sight in binoculars.
Facing south high in the sky on March evenings is the ever-fascinating planet Jupiter—so brilliant that it commands the attention of even the most casual sky-watcher. It’s retinue of four bright Galilean satellites (those discovered by Galileo with his primitive telescope) can be glimpsed in steadily-held or image-stabilized binoculars at 7x or more, depending upon where they are around the planet. They are a joy to behold in the smallest of telescopes at even the lowest of magnifications as they dance to-and-fro about the planet—passing behind of or in front of it, and disappearing and reappearing in Jupiter’s huge shadow. They make this the most active of all the planets to observe.
Not so obvious is the dim hazy Beehive star cluster at the heart of the equally dim constellation of Cancer. Jupiter currently lies just to the east (left) of this stellar commune, making it a snap to locate. But without the planet, you need some bright guide stars to pinpoint its gossamer glow. Setting your Scientific’s Star & Planet Locator to the date and time you are observing, find the twin stars Castor and Pollux in Gemini to the west and Regulus in Leo to the east. The Beehive lies almost exactly between these stellar beacons. Using wide-angle binoculars, both the planet and cluster can currently be seen within the same field of view. If your glasses are not wide-angle ones, sweeping slightly left-right will show them.
The existence of the Beehive as seen with the naked eye was well known throughout antiquity. It was variously referred to by early astronomers as the “Little Cloud,” the “Little Mist,” the “Cloudy One, and “Nebilum.” (It was also frequently called “Praesepe” or the “Manger.”) And in fact, its visibility—or invisibility—was often used (and still is by some sky-watchers even today) as a kind of weather indicator. If it couldn’t be seen in an otherwise clear sky, it signaled a high-level approaching storm with rain or snow likely within the next 24 hours. Interestingly, the glare of nearby Jupiter currently makes glimpsing the Beehive with the unaided eye much more of a challenge than usual even on the darkest and clearest of nights. To eliminate the glare, simply cover the planet with your hand. The nature of the Beehive was long a mystery until 1610 when Galileo—employing the same telescope used to discover the moons of Jupiter—resolved it into individual stars. So contemplate that there’s a fascinating connection between these two objects as you peer skyward at them these March evenings.
— James Mullaney
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of nine books on stargazing. His latest, Celebrating the Universe!, is available from HayHouse.com.