Not all constellations are created equal. For instance, If you’re looking for Cancer, the crab, in the night sky, you’re out of luck. The faint constellation, which is the dimmest of the 12 Zodiac signs, is barely visible to the naked eye.
The doesn’t mean you should ignore that region of the sky, though. The barely-there crustacean is notable for being home to the Beehive Cluster, a fascinating and eye-catching formation that has beguiled stargazers for millennia.
The Beehive Cluster is an open cluster — a large group of stars roughly the same age, formed from the same giant molecular cloud.
Known variously as “the ghost,” “the little cloud,” and “the little mist” in ancient times, the cluster looks like a massive smudge in the sky, and was once believed to be a nebula — an interstellar cloud of dust, hydrogen, helium and other ionized gases.
The cluster got its name because the close aggregation of stars reminded astronomers of a swarm of buzzing bees.
But the Ancient Greeks and Romans saw something else. They called the cluster “the manger,” referring to the feeding place of the nearby stars Asellus Borealis and Asellus Australis—said to be the donkeys Greek gods Dionysus and Silenus rode into battle against the Titans.
It wasn’t until 1609 that someone got a good look at the formation. Galileo Galilei—the first person to use a telescope for the purpose of astronomical research—trained his instrument on the cluster, picking out 40 individual stars in the previously nondescript fog.
More than a century later, in 1769, French astronomer Charles Messier added it to his famous catalog of deep sky objects, dubbing it M44. It was among the brightest formations to be included in his list.
Since then, astronomers have discovered more than 1,000 stars in the cluster. It’s age (600 million years), and distance (between 520 and 610 light years away), suggest it may be related to the Hyades, another storied star cluster.
The Beehive Cluster made the news in September of 2012, when astronomers discovered two planets—Pr0201b and Pr0211b—orbiting separate stars in the cluster. The planets were notable for being the first ever to be detected orbiting Sun-like stars in stellar clusters. The two planets are both “hot Jupiters,” massive gas giants that orbit in close proximity to their parent stars.
When to view it:
The Beehive Cluster is in view at the end of February or in early March. As the months pass, it will climb higher in the evening sky. It disappears from the western evening sky in late June, and returns to the eastern morning sky in late August!