Jupiter and Venus meet by the Beehive

¡SkyCaramba! Weekly astronomy blog for the week ending August 16, 2014

I hope you’re not too busy to check out a little beehive of activity in the morning sky during the next two weeks. Jupiter is already closing in on a star cluster officially named Praesepe but often informally called the Beehive. Venus is a little farther from the Beehive, but it’s moving toward it too and faster than Jupiter.

The two planets will be side by side on the morning of the 18th. Less than a quarter of a degree apart, you’ll easily see them together in binoculars or a telescope. And they’ll be right next to the Beehive which will give you a wondrous sight! It will be even better if you can see Jupiter’s moons too.

After the 18th, Venus continues on its way below the star cluster. In the coming weeks, it will get harder to see as it approaches the sun. In the real three-dimensional solar system, Venus will be on the other side of the sun in late October.

Even without binoculars or a telescope, you can see the Beehive if your sky is dark enough. It’ll be a little difficult for you in the southern hemisphere this time of year, because the cluster rises rather soon before sunrise. In the middle and high latitudes of the northern hemisphere, you’ll see it as a fuzzy object with the naked eye. That’s how the ancient sky observers saw it.

The numerous stars aren’t revealed until you magnify it. Galileo saw 40 stars when he pointed his telescope at Praesepe. Today’s astronomical observing equipment detects gas giant planets orbiting some of the stars there.

Praesepe is a Latin word for manger. To the ancient Greeks and Romans, the cluster was a manger from which two nearby donkeys ate. The donkeys are represented by two stars you can see to the left and right of the cluster as Praesepe rises. The donkeys carried warriors into battle against the Titans. To ancient Chinese observers, this little smudge in the sky was a cloud of ghost spirits.

Wherever you are, if you have trouble seeing the Beehive, wait a month or two and you’ll see it much higher in the sky before sunrise. But in any case, enjoy the view of Jupiter and Venus coming together for a very close call.