If you’re up at dawn, you’ll easily see the waning crescent moon and the dazzling planet Jupiter lighting up your eastern sky. After all, the moon and Jupiter rank as the brightest and second-brightest celestial bodies, respectively, to adorn the September 2013 predawn and dawn sky. But you’ll need to be up before dawn (approximately one and one-half hours before sunrise) to see the fainter red planet Mars and the even dimmer Beehive star cluster in a dark sky. Binoculars may come in handy!
If you’re not interested in getting up early to see the planets Jupiter and Mars, you can seek for planets at dusk and nightfall instead. As seen from mid-northern latitudes, the planets Venus and Saturn are found in the southwest sky. From more southerly latitudes – the northern tropics and the Southern Hemisphere – the planet Mercury can be seen beneath Venus and Saturn in their western sky.
But back to the morning sky. As seen from North America, the moon will make a triangle with Mars and the Beehive star cluster tomorrow morning (September 30), with the moon approximately midway between Mars and the Beehive. In the world’s Eastern Hemisphere – Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and New Zealand – the moon will be offset in the direction of the Beehive on this same date.
In a dark country sky, the Beehive looks like a small smudge of light with the unaided eye. Binoculars, though, reveal that this faint fuzzy is actually a cluster teeming with stars. Jupiter shines above the Beehive, and Mars and the star Regulus shine below the Beehive, making this cluster rather easy to locate in the predawn sky. An imaginary line from Jupiter to the star Regulus enables you to see the ecliptic – the pathway of the planets – with your mind’s-eye. Because the Beehive cluster and Mars reside near the ecliptic, you can find them between Jupiter and Regulus for the next few weeks.
Mars will edge closer to Regulus day by day, to pair up with Regulus in mid-October 2013. As for Jupiter, it won’t reach the Beehive until August 2014. So you can use Jupiter and Regulus to locate the Beehive star cluster for some time to come. By the way, the Beehive resides very close to the center of the constellation Cancer the Crab.
Two faint yet visible stars flank the Beehive cluster: Asellus Borealis (Northern Donkey) and Asellus Australis (Southern Donkey). According to star lore, creatures such as donkeys were unbeknownst to the giant Titans when the Olympians and Titans were engaging in their legendary struggle. 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 a crib of hay forever after.
In late September 2013, the moon shines below Jupiter but above Mars and Regulus. Once you’ve found these two planets and the star Regulus in predawn sky, you can star-hop to the Beehive star cluster in the constellation Cancer for months to come.