By Adam England
On the evening of 6 September, the moon will make a close (1˚04’) approach to one of the oldest studied star clusters, the Beehive Cluster, in the constellation Cancer. Ancient Chinese astronomers labeled the accompanying constellation as the Ghost, with the cluster itself known as Jishi Qi or “exhalation of piled-up corpses” as the breath coming from the ghost. In the Mediterranean civilizations, Hipparchus listed it in his 130 BC star catalog as Nephelion, meaning “Little Cloud,” and the Greek poet Aratus as Achlus or “Little Mist,” while the average Greeks and Romans saw it as a manger from which two neighboring donkeys were eating, with its fuzzy naked-eye appearance being the loose straw. Galileo famously turned his eye and telescope to the cluster in 1609, resolving 40 individual stars in the cluster. Charles Messier took a gander in 1769 and added it to his famous list of sky objects, cataloging it as Messier 44 or M44.
To the naked eye, we can see the same thing that our ancient counterparts observed — albeit through a little more light pollution. It will appear as a fuzzy spot in the sky, commonly mistaken for a nebula of gas. But with even the smallest telescope or binoculars, you can begin to see the individual stars. In the center of the cluster are the larger, brighter red giants with the smaller, dimmer white dwarfs residing in the halo or corona of the cluster. The most recent surveys put the total at 1010 stars, of which approximately 30 percent are Sun-like. It averages 577 light-years from Earth and spans about 24 light years in diameter. By comparison, the next closest star to Earth is Proxima Centauri at 4.25 light years. If we were at the center of the Beehive Cluster, we would have more than 40 stars within the same distance as Proxima Centauri.
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Adam England is the director-at large and in charge of public relations for the Prescott Astronomy Club.
Tags: Achlus, Adam England, Aratus, Beehive Cluster, Cancer, Galileo, ghost, Hipparchus, Jeff Stillman, jishi qi, Little Cl;oud, Little Mist, M44, Messier, Messier 44, Nephelion, Prescott Astronomy Club, What's Up?