After staging the closest planet-planet conjunction of 2014 on August 18, Venus and Jupiter are still shining quite close together on the sky’s dome before sunrise. Look east. Jupiter, the fainter of these two bright beauties, is your ticket to locating the Beehive star cluster, also known as the Praesepe or Messier 44. In a clear, dark sky, the Beehive cluster is visible as a faint smudge of light to the unaided eye. And this wondrous star cluster bursts into a sparkling array of stars through ordinary binoculars. Because Jupiter and the Beehive sit close to the glare of dawn right now, it might be hard to spot the Beehive on August 20.
The Beehive won’t be easy to spot near Jupiter on August 20, because the the planet and cluster are so close to the sunrise. Both the planet Jupiter and the Beehive cluster will climb away from the glow of dawn over the next few weeks, however. So they’ll rise into the predawn darkness beginning just days from now. Around September 1, at mid-northern latitudes, Jupiter and the Beehive will rise in the east about an hour before dawn’s first light (two and one-half hours before sunrise).
Best of all, Jupiter and the Beehive will remain in the same binocular field of view until mid-September.
The Beehive star cluster, the crown jewel of the constellation Cancer the Crab, once served as a weather station in ancient times, before the advent of light pollution. The first century AD Roman author Pliny is said to have reported that if the Praesepe (ancient name for the Beehive) is not visible in an otherwise clear sky, it is a presage of a violent storm.
Recent estimates place the Beehive star cluster at 577 light-years away and its age at 730 million years.
Bottom line: Use Jupiter and binoculars to spot the Beehive, aka Messier 44, one of the most magnificent star clusters in the starry heavens on August 20. Then continue to follow this cluster and planet for some weeks to come. They’ll be in the same binocular field until mid-September.