Celestial News: Mars and Venus visit the beehive
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
As the month of June opens, two planets adorn our evening sky: Venus and Mars. Both are passing through the constellation of the Gemini Twins in early June. Venus is exceptionally bright. Mars is much dimmer, but its reddish color gives it away.
In spite of its brilliance, Venus is challenging to see in the opening days of June because it is still relatively close to the sun, setting about an hour and a half after the sun does. Your best chance of seeing it will be about 45 minutes to one hour after sunset in the fading twilight glow. Look very low in the northwestern sky.
Mars hangs around longer after the sun goes down, setting a full three hours after the sun. Look for it in the western sky, just to the left of the twin stars Pollux and Castor.
Mars and Venus are beautiful unto themselves, but when seen with a swarm of glittering stars behind them, beautiful becomes spectacular.
Sky watchers will have that opportunity at dusk June 23 when Mars passes in front of the Beehive Star Cluster in the constellation of Cancer, the Crab, and then again nine days later on July 2 when Venus poses in front of the Beehive. This double passage of the evening planets through the Beehive made my Top 10 list of 2021 sky events.
The Beehive star cluster, also known as the Praesepe (the Manger), is the 44th object in 18th century French astronomer Charles Messier’s famous list of fuzzy objects in the sky. You can see this fuzzy smudge with your naked eye on a clear, moonless night in the middle of the constellation Cancer. Binoculars reveal it to be a cluster of dozens of little stars. The Beehive star cluster was born about 600-million years ago and lies nearly 600 light years from Earth.
You’ll need a clear view of the west-northwest horizon and a pair of binoculars to enjoy this pair of Top 10 events. On June 23, start looking around 9:45 p.m. as darkness falls. Mars will be easy to spot with the naked eye, but binoculars or a small telescope on low power will be needed to spot the twinkly star cluster surrounding Mars.
Nine nights later, on July 2, Venus will take its turn crossing the Beehive. Once again, look toward the west-northwest horizon around 9:45 p.m.
For information about astronomy-related events in Steamboat Springs, including public star parties at CMC’s Ball Observatory, contact current physics and astronomy instructor Paul McCudden, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-870-4537 or visit the SKY Club webpage at ColoradoMTN.edu/skyclub.
Jimmy Westlake is the former full-time professor of physical sciences at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs and former director of the Rollins Planetarium at Young Harris College in Georgia and the St. Charles Parish Planetarium in Louisiana. His “Celestial News” column appears monthly in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Visit his website at JWestlake.com.
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