February 9, 2006
A celestial swarm of stars will hover near a honey-colored Saturn for the next several months. Sky watchers will see the ringed planet together with the Beehive cluster, or M44, a group of stars that also make their home in the Milky Way galaxy.
Saturn and the fainter cluster of stars can be spotted below the moon on Feb. 10. On Feb. 11, Saturn will be visible above the moon. And at sunset on Feb. 12, the full moon will rise to join Saturn, a pale golden glow in the eastern sky. A few hours after sunset the full moon will have climbed a third of the distance above the horizon. You'll be able to spot Saturn above the moon even from the city. The bright stars of the constellations Leo and Gemini will frame the celestial scene.
The Beehive cluster, named M44 in the 18th century, has enchanted amateur astronomers for thousands of years. Known to the ancients, the Beehive cluster is one of the few star clusters visible to the unaided eye. Galileo first trained his telescope on the starry cluster in the 1600s. He was amazed to resolve 40 individual stars through his eyepiece. You'll see perhaps a dozen loosely clustered stars in a space the size of the full moon near Saturn with your unaided eye. With binoculars or a telescope, you'll see one hundred or more stars in a cluster more than twice the size of the moon.
The Beehive Cluster lies about 600 light-years away. By comparison, Saturn is about 70 light minutes distant, and our moon is 1 light second away.
This celestial beehive will be visible near Saturn for many months to come. In late June, Mars and Saturn have a close conjunction with M44 near the western horizon just past sunset.