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March 2003: Jupiter & the Beehive Star Cluster

On a clear night, you can't miss Jupiter. At nightfall, it shines beautifully and boldly in the southeast, outshining every star in the evening sky. This month, Jupiter escorts you to an often overlooked treasure in the constellation Cancer.

Although Cancer, the crab, is the faintest constellation of the zodiac, Jupiter resides smackdab in the middle of it, locating its position in the sky for you. By aiming ordinary binoculars at Jupiter, you'll not only see the Beehive, Cancer's crown jewel, but will venture forth to where mortality and immortality intermingle. According to ancient Chaldean and Platonic philosophy, Cancer is the gateway through which souls descend from heaven to the bodies of the newly born.

On a dark, moonless night - away from light polluted skies - you may see a blurry patch of light to the west (or upper right) of Jupiter. That's the pride and joy of Cancer: the Beehive star cluster! In ancient times, the Beehive's absence on a clear night was a sure sign to prognosticators of an impending and virulent storm.

Whether you see the cluster with the unaided eye or not, try your luck with binoculars. Chances are the misty patch will turn into a glittery array of stars!

While observing, notice that the star cluster is flanked by two stars. Their names are Asellus Borealis and Asellus Australis, meaning the "Northern & Southern Donkeys." The northern donkey is the star at top. The ancient name for this cluster, Praesepe, means "manger" or "crib."

Apparently, during the mythological struggle between the Titans and the Olympians, creatures such as donkeys were unbeknownst to the giant Titans. The donkeys' braying - which the Titans had never heard before - alarmed them so greatly that they readily retreated from the Olympians. In gratitude, Jupiter placed these donkeys in the sky, providing them with hay forever after.

This larger-than-life tale takes stage within a single binocular field of view, a classic that's as timeless as the stars!

Another March Feature: Asteroid Vesta

Jupiter & Beehive in April