On March evenings, a very famous but subtle stellar commune sits right on the celestial meridian (the north-south line in the sky passing overhead) in the constellation Cancer. A fascinating sight whether using the unaided eye, binoculars, or wide-field telescopes, it’s a “must-see” target for skywatchers.
To identify the Beehive Star Cluster and its host constellation, set your Scientifics Star and Planet Locator to around 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. and face south. There you will find a faint pattern of stars and in it’s midst a soft glow (marked “Beehive” on the chart). If you have trouble seeing it, use the technique known as “averted vision.” This involves looking slightly off to one side of an object, which bring the light-sensitive part of the eye into play. In doing so, you may see a sparkle to the glow which are actually the stars themselves making up the cluster. A dark moonless night away from street and porch lights also helps here!
Turning to binoculars transforms this fuzzy patch into a glittering stellar jewelbox! Any and all sizes work, my personal favorite being 10X50’s. Even a humble pair of opera glasses will give an interesting view. (Interestingly, few people ever seem to think of turning their binoculars skyward at night and fail to realize that these glasses make wonderful stargazing instruments!)
Next come telescopes, many of which have relatively narrow fields of view and cannot encompass the entire cluster which is quite large. Exceptions are wide-field, low-power scopes such as the legendary original Astroscan (which is no longer in production) and the Astroscan Millennum. Both provide a whopping 3 degrees (or six full-Moon-diameters) of sky and give an amazing view of the Beehive suspended in space. Also, depending on the size of the telescope, careful scrutiny will show that the stars are actually different colors—mostly orange and blue-white. And while Galileo only counted 36 stars here with his primitive “optic tube,” cluster membership is given as at least several hundred.
In closing, two other things about the Beehive should be mentioned. The cluster lies right on the ecliptic pathway of the planets—meaning that occasionally one of them can be seen passing through (in front of) the cluster from week-to-week (and in the case of fast-moving Mars, night-to-night)! And the Beehive has long been used as a “weather forecaster” (at least back into antiquity). Its invisibility to the unaided eye in an otherwise clear sky signals an approaching weather front. So if you don’t see it—better check the forecast! This swarm of celestial bees glows softly at us from across a distance of nearly 600 light-years of interstellar space.
— 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.