Meet Taurus the Bull in the February evening sky

Taurus the Bull: Fork-shaped constellation with lines with Aldebaran labeled, and small cluster labeled Pleiades at the top.
Taurus the Bull contains 2 star clusters that are easy to spot, the Pleiades and the Hyades.

Taurus the Bull

The constellation Taurus the Bull is visible during the fall through spring in the Northern Hemisphere (or spring through fall in the Southern Hemisphere). It sits in the evening sky close to the easy-to-see constellation Orion.

Basically, Taurus the Bull takes the shape of a two-pronged fork, with the center V-shape consisting of an actual star cluster – a family of stars in space – that we call the Hyades. The Hyades marks the face of the Bull. The bright red star Aldebaran shines in the V and represents the Bull’s fiery eye. In addition, Taurus holds another famous star cluster, which we call the Pleiades or Seven Sisters. You’ll notice it has the shape of a tiny dipper.

Moreover, Taurus is also the radiant point for the annual Taurid meteor shower, which happens every year in November.

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Sky chart showing an arrow from Belt of Orion to the star Aldebaran. The Pleiades is in the upper right.
First, find the prominent constellation Orion. Then locate the bright red star Aldebaran. Orion’s Belt always points to Aldebaran. Then, generally extending that line takes you toward the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters.

Locating Taurus the Bull

Taurus is a constellation of the zodiac, which means the sun, moon and planets travel through it regularly. In fact, the sun passes through the constellation Taurus from about May 14 to June 21. However, you can’t see Taurus when the sun is within its borders.

Generally speaking, Taurus is easy to find on its own. That’s because of the two star clusters, the V-shaped Hyades and small but distinctive stars of the Pleiades. Also, if you orient yourself with the famous constellation of Orion, you’ll know you’re looking in the right place.

First find Orion by looking for its three Belt stars. Orion and Taurus are next-door neighbors on the sky’s dome. In fact, Taurus rises above the horizon first. So by the time Orion is risen, you can use its Belt stars to draw a line upward to find Aldebaran and the two clusters of Taurus.

Star chart with stars in black on white showing constellations Orion and Taurus.
This star chart for Taurus the Bull shows the location of Aldebaran in the V-shaped head of Taurus the Bull. Additionally, you can see M1, the Crab Nebula, between the star Elnath (Beta Tauri) and Zeta Tauri. Chart via IAU/ Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0).

The stars of the Bull

Furthermore, Taurus is home to two particularly bright stars: Aldebaran and Elnath. Aldebaran is the easier of the two to find because it’s brighter, it’s part of the V-shape of the Hyades and it has a reddish hue.

For good reason, stargazers think of Aldebaran as the Bull’s fiery eye. Aldebaran is the 14th brightest star in the sky. It shines at magnitude 0.85. Although it may look like part of the Hyades cluster, it’s much closer. Aldebaran lies 65 light-years distant. The other stars of the Hyades are about 150 light-years away.

Elnath marks the end of one of Taurus the Bull’s horns. It’s on the opposite side of the Bull’s head from Aldebaran. Elnath is the 2nd brightest star in Taurus after Aldebaran. It shines at magnitude 1.68. Relatively nearby, Elnath lies about 130 light-years away, in the direction of the Milky Way’s anticenter.

Antique etching of front half of a bull superimposed over a star chart.
View larger. | The constellation Taurus. Aldebaran marks one eye and Elnath marks the tip of one horn. Image via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

The Crab Nebula

In addition, Taurus holds an excellent deep-sky target that you can spot with binoculars or a small telescope. Messier 1, or the Crab Nebula, is what’s left of a star after it exploded in a supernova. As a result, it lit up the daytime sky for over a month in 1054 CE.

Now, the Crab Nebula shines at magnitude 8.4. Plus, it’s easy to find since it lies near a star in Taurus named Zeta Tauri. While Elnath is the point of one of the Bull’s Horns, Zeta Tauri is the other.

Two complex oval clouds in space, one noticeably brighter and more detailed and greener in color.
This side-by-side comparison of the Crab Nebula as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in optical light (left) and the James Webb Space Telescope in infrared light (right) reveals different details. By studying the collected Webb data, and consulting previous observations of the Crab taken by other telescopes like Hubble, astronomers can build a more comprehensive understanding of this supernova remnant. Hubble Image via NASA/ ESA J. Hester, A. Loll; Webb Image via NASA/ ESA/ CSA/ STScI/ T. Temim.
An oblong, multicolor burst of gas and dust in a black starfield.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Jeremy Likness in Newport, Oregon, made this colorful image of the Crab Nebula with videos recorded on October 28, 2023. Jeremy wrote: “When Charles Messier was looking for Halley’s Comet, he kept coming across a fuzzy patch he realized didn’t move like a comet. So, he started a journal of these annoying distractions and designated the fuzzy patch M1.” We now know M1 as the Crab Nebula, the remains of a star that went supernova. Thank you, Jeremy!

Taurus the Bull in mythology and timekeeping

According to Greek mythology, the constellation Taurus commemorates the god Zeus. That’s because Zeus changed himself into a beautiful white Bull to win the affections of the Phoenician princess Europa. After Europa hopped onto the Bull’s back, the Bull swam across the Mediterranean Sea, taking Europa all the way to the island of Crete. Later, Zeus and Europa became the parents of Minos, the legendary king of Crete.

Meanwhile, the Zuni of New Mexico used the Pleiades cluster as an agricultural calendar. When the Pleiades – which the Zuni called the Seed Stars – disappeared into the western dusk in spring, they knew it was safe to plant their seeds, as the danger of frost had passed. However, the Zuni also knew the planting must be done before the Pleiades reappeared in the east before sunrise. Otherwise, immature plants would succumb to autumn frosts.

And the Zuni were hardly alone in their reverence for the Pleiades star cluster. Indeed, probably no other star formation has enjoyed such worldwide renown for timekeeping, celebration and storytelling.

Simple terra cotta clay figure of a person with pointed hat sitting side saddle on an animal.
Europa carried by Zeus, after he was transformed into a bull. As an illustration, this is a terracotta figurine from Boeotia, ca. 470 BCE–450 BCE. Image via Jastrow/ Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Bottom line: Taurus the Bull resides near the constellation Orion. It contains two famous star clusters that are easy to spot: the Pleiades and the Hyades.

The constellations of the zodiac

Taurus the Bull in the evening sky
Gemini the Twins, home to 2 bright stars
Cancer the Crab and its Beehive Cluster
Leo the Lion and its backward question mark
Virgo the Maiden in northern spring skies
Libra the Scales, a zodiacal constellation
Scorpius the Scorpion is a summertime delight
Sagittarius the Archer and its famous Teapot
Capricornus the Sea-goat has an arrowhead shape
Aquarius the Water Bearer and its stars
Pisces the Fish, 1st constellation of the zodiac
Say hello to Aries the Ram
Born under the sign of Ophiuchus?

February 6, 2024

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