Spring will be here with the equinox, but before then, we have to set our clocks forward, which gives me another chance to complain about having to follow daylight saving time. This is one time when Arizona and Hawaii have the right idea.
Last month, I talked about Canis Major and Canis Minor, two constellations that follow Orion. I have since realized that I have never had a column about Taurus. The bull is immediately to the west of Orion, so leads him through the sky. But Taurus’ head is facing Orion, so he is apparently backing through the sky.
In mythology, the bull is Zeus in disguise. Only the front of the bull is shown because he is swimming while abducting the princess Europa. In some stories, the Seven Sisters are riding on the bull’s back. This makes me wonder if Orion is trying to save the sisters from Taurus or if Taurus is protecting the sisters from Orion.
The Seven Sisters, also known as M45 or the Pleiades, is perhaps the most well-known open cluster. I have heard this cluster mistaken for the Little Dipper on more than one occasion because the six most prominent stars (or nine if you have exceptional eyesight) are in a tiny dipper formation. Through binoculars, scores of dimmer stars are visible. Photographs also show a wispy blue reflection nebula, where dust clouds reflect the light from the bright blue stars.
It is believed that all stars in an open cluster form at roughly the same time and only vary in mass. The most massive stars burn the brightest and hottest so appear blue and will have the shortest lives. These are the ones you can see with your naked eye, but they are the least common in the cluster. The smaller the star, the dimmer and redder it will be. These much more common smaller, redder stars will greatly outlive their luminous siblings.
The cluster is about 130 parsecs away, one of the closest to Earth, and around 100 million years old, one of the youngest there is. Determining more precise values for the age of and distance to the Pleiades is an active research topic.
Another object of interest in Taurus is M1, the Crab Nebula. This is the remnant of a supernova explosion observed in 1054. There are reports of observing the Crab Nebula with binoculars, but I have seen it only through a telescope.
This monthTaurus will be high in the southwest sky after sunset. Find Taurus by following the line of Orion’s belt to the right a little more than two fist widths to the first magnitude red giant Aldebaran, representing the eye of the bull. (I guess Taurus is smart for always keeping a watchful eye on the pursuing hunter Orion.) Aldebaran is in the midst of the “V” shape of the Hyades open cluster but is closer than the Hyades, so not part of that cluster. The Hyades are another open cluster that is even closer to us than the Pleiades, but they are more spread out so look a bit less cluster-like. The “V” shape will fit inside your fingers when you make a peace sign held at arm’s length.
Continuing the line from Orion’s belt another fist width beyond Aldebaran will take you to the Pleiades.
Venus is still the bright evening star, but not for long. It is now setting before 8 p.m. and will appear as a crescent under magnification. Within a couple of weeks, it will pass in front of the sun and become our morning star by next month. Mercury will be visible at sunset by the end of the month.
Jupiter is rising around 9 p.m. and is very close to the bright star Spica. The next two months should be the best time to view Jupiter through a telescope, as it will reach opposition in early April.
Charles Hakes teaches in the physics and engineering department at Fort Lewis College and is the director of the Fort Lewis Observatory. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.